By PETE GOLIS
Let’s begin this morning’s session with a show of hands. Who out there is excited about the Santa Rosa City Council’s plan to tax your cellphone?
Anyone? I didn’t think so. Even if you accept the need for a local tax on cellphones — and aren’t you a nice person? — this proposal emerges as a pale imitation of what it will take to put things right.
Mayor Scott Bartley and Councilman Jake Ours defended their modest proposal, saying there was not enough time between now and November to prepare a comprehensive ballot measure that returns stability to the city’s long-term financial prospects.
But the fact is, the subcommittee assigned to produce a long-term fix has been meeting for more than a year. And there’s nothing new about the financial challenges facing the city.
Some detail: If voters in November agree, the city’s utility users tax will be extended to cellphones and to phone calls placed over the Internet. At the same time, the tax rate would be reduced from 5 percent to 4.25 percent. The net gain to the city would be $1.6 million a year, a modest amount in a $340 million budget.
The council voted 5-2 to place the measure on the ballot with council members Gary Wysocky and Julie Combs opposed, saying the council should first resolve larger budget issues.
Back in 1970, happier times for local government, no one seemed to notice or care when Santa Rosa decided to impose a tax on electricity, gas, cable TV and landline phones. (According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, about half the state’s residents now live in jurisdictions that levy a utility users tax.)
What are the chances voters would approve that tax today? Don’t ask.
What’s the nexus between city services and cellphones? Let’s just say the city needs the money.
Bartley said last week that the measure will spare the city from the erosion of utility tax revenues as consumers abandon land lines for cellphones, Staff Writer Kevin McCallum reported.
The bigger problem is, this small bump in revenue doesn’t do the job assigned to the council. Bartley admitted as much when he said, “There isn’t only one solution that’s going to give us long-term financial stability.”
If you’re keeping score, this would be the third in a series of tax revenue measures designed to make things better.
Measure O, a quarter-cent sales tax, was enacted in 2004 to guarantee spending on public safety, but it generated unintended consequences. The baseline provisions compel the city to spend a larger and larger share of the city budget on public safety, leaving less for street repairs, parks and every other municipal responsibility. About three dollars of every five now go to police and fire, and the public safety share of the budget continues to grow. The tax expires in 2024.
Measure P, another quarter-cent sales tax, was enacted in 2010 to reduce the budget shortfalls blamed on the recession of 2008. But that tax expires in 2019.
The City Council was supposed to produce a solution that resolves the spending constraints associated with Measure O and provides for reliable future revenues. We’re still waiting.
Meanwhile, as The Press Democrat Editorial Board noted last week, the council has yet to explain how it’s going to manage a $251 million shortfall in the money necessary to pay for retirees’ pensions and health care.
For an enterprise with 1,200 employees and a $340 million annual budget, there is a larger context here.
In times of austerity, it doesn’t get easier to attract talented people to public service, and circumstances have conspired to make Santa Rosa City Hall a less welcoming place than most.
An alleged shouting match between one council member and the city attorney recently caused the mayor to formally accuse the council member of creating a hostile work environment.
In the midst of all this uncertainty, the city manager (hired on a 4-3 vote) is retiring after 3 1/2 years; the post of chief financial officer just came vacant for the fourth time in six years; and the police chief just retired.
After one term or less, two members of the City Council are walking away, and two others are making plans to run for other political offices.
No one should be fooled into thinking that potential applicants won’t do their research. If the City Council wants to recruit talented people to government, it must convince them that it is committed to restoring stability to the city’s long-term financial prospects.
The council also must do what doesn’t come naturally, which is demonstrate its capacity to set aside old wounds and work together. In light of recent history, that won’t be an easy sell. Note that the retiring city manager, Kathy Millison, and a recent police chief, Ed Flint, never sold their homes in other cities. Yes, they accepted jobs in Santa Rosa, but they weren’t prepared to make a long-term bet on a council with a reputation for being fractious.
For now, the council seems willing to remain in a holding pattern, probably because no one wants to confront the bitter medicine associated with lasting solutions. Unfortunately, these problems only become more intractable as time goes on.
Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at email@example.com.