Petaluma residents will get a chance to sound off on a potential new tax to pay for city services.
City Council members authorized City Manager John Brown to commission a survey of Petalumans to determine whether they are willing to approve a tax. The survey will also seek to find what kind of tax residents might support, how long it should last and what its proceeds should fund.
The hurdle to convince residents, many of whom suffered their own financial setbacks and belt-tightening during the recession, to tax themselves may be a high one. In the past decade, Petaluma voters have defeated both proposed tax increases put before them.
City leaders are considering possibly trying a third measure, likely for the November 2014 ballot. But first, Brown cautioned, the electorate's enthusiasm for a tax should be measured.
He laid out the case to council members Monday night.
City spending has been cut from about $49 million five years ago to $23.5 million last year. Spending rose to $35 million this year on higher employee retirement and health care costs. Reserve funds in most accounts have been used, he said.
Streets have gone unrepaired, city functions have been privatized, vehicles have been kept longer and the city staff has been reduced from about 350 to 280 today, Brown said.
"We've got a ton of unmet needs and we don't have the resources to take care of those problems," he said. "These are all pipers that need to be paid at his point. We really don't have the funding to cover our costs and a tax of some kind appears to be the answer to this problem."
Brown said he will seek private funding to pay for the survey, expected to cost between $20,000 and $40,000, depending on how in-depth it is.
All seven council members supported polling residents. But several doubted whether they would agree to tax themselves.
"I'm skeptical that the community will buy into it," said Mayor David Glass. "But I'm certainly willing to poll to find out."
Sonoma County Taxpayers Association President Dan Drummond said his organization will oppose a Petaluma tax hike until the city makes significant progress in reducing its pension liabilities.
"Before you can have any credibility to go to the public and say we need additional revenues, you need to show us you've taken seriously the pension crisis," he said.
Councilman Mike Healy said other cities that also have pension-funding problems were able to persuade voters to increase their sales taxes. Voters in Sebastopol, Healdsburg, Sonoma approved sales-tax increases last year. Rohnert Park, Cotati and Santa Rosa voters did so in 2010.
"We're going to have to do something," said Councilwoman Kathy Miller, who campaigned for the unsuccessful Measure X parcel tax for parks last year. "We need to know if the community will tolerate a tax or not."
Measure X, a $52 annual property tax, garnered 62 percent approval, but failed to reach the two-thirds majority needed for passage.