As city council members revel in poll results that showed Petaluma voters are likely to approve a sales tax increase to pay for street and traffic improvements, they now face the daunting task of crafting a measure that ensures voters get what they want.
"I was pleasantly surprised by the support," said Mayor David Glass. "But now the real work begins."
A recent survey of 450 Petaluma voters conducted by the Sacramento firm William Berry Campaigns showed that 60 percent of those polled were likely to approve a 1-cent sales tax increase for a duration of 30 years, if the money it raised went to road maintenance and crosstown connectors to reduce traffic congestion.
Therein lies the problem for city officials. While 60 percent is a majority of voters, it does not meet the required two-thirds majority to pass a specialized tax that funds specific projects, such as street repair. A general tax measure, which only requires a 50-plus-one majority approval making it much more likely to pass, cannot be earmarked for specific projects. The revenue raised goes into the city's general fund coffers and can be spent at the city council's discretion.
"What we absolutely cannot do is ask the voters to pass a general sales tax that the public thinks will pay for traffic relief and then not provide the traffic relief," said Glass. "I'm very pleased that the public has enough faith in this council to see that we truly need the money and we would spend it where they want us to. Now we just have to figure out how to get the voters what they want for many years to come, through many different councils."
Petaluma's 8.25 percent sales tax rate is currently tied for the second lowest in the county with Sebastopol. A 1-cent increase for 30 years would raise about $10 million a year and about $300 million over the life of the tax, and bring the city's sales tax to 9.25 percent. The additional penny on every dollar spent in Petaluma would generate enough money to fund almost all the street projects the city currently has planned -#8212; including the long-promised Rainier Avenue crosstown connector, designed to give commuters another route to travel between east and west Petaluma.
"Three hundred million dollars over the life of the tax means you could do a lot," said City Councilmember Mike Healy. "You could build two crosstown connectors."
But a 1-cent increase would also put Petaluma at the highest sales tax rate in the county -#8212; something that worries Glass.
"Over 9 percent is a concern to me," he said Tuesday. "At what point do we lose shoppers because we've become non-competitive in our pricing? I'm not sure. But we also have to realize that many people want traffic mitigation and they may be willing to pay for it. These are all things we have to get a better handle on before we move forward."
Passing a tax increase measure is not easy, according to William Berry Campaigns consultant Bill Berry.