City officials are gauging the pulse of Petaluma voters by polling residents about a possible sales tax measure, in an effort to determine whether it would pass with voters at next November's election.

The 30-minute telephone survey, conducted by the Sacramento-based William Berry Campaigns firm, asked voters if they would be in favor of a 1-cent, half-cent or quarter-cent sales tax increase that would last between three and 30 years.

City Councilmember Mike Harris said the polling, which began on Friday, Nov. 22, was scheduled to wrap up before Thanksgiving. William Berry Campaigns will deliver 400 completed surveys and will present the results at the Jan. 6 city council meeting, City Manager John Brown said in an email to council members on Monday.

Brown could not be reached for comment Tuesday due to the shortened Thanksgiving holiday week.

Residents said pollers asked them a series of questions that stressed the need for a sales tax increase. Calling it a "push poll," Petaluma resident Karen Nau, a former Petaluma City Council member, said that she felt it used "scare tactics" to highlight the city's cash-strapped finances.

"They asked questions like 'Would you be willing to see a fire station close?' and 'Would you be willing to keep current city positions frozen?'" said Nau. "So the city is saying that if they don't get this money, they won't be able to hire back police officers or keep fire safety at its current levels of service."

But City Councilmember Mike Healy, who has seen the polling questions, disagreed.

"That would be counterproductive to what we're trying to do," he said. "We want to find out what's on people's minds. You don't draft a poll that leads people to say what you want them to say, when you're trying to figure out what people will vote for. The sales tax measure hasn't been designed yet, so a big part of the polling is asking residents what a sales tax measure should look like."

Those polled, according to Nau and others who were surveyed, were also asked how they would rate city parks, traffic, fees collected by the city, activities for youth, the city council and the Petaluma fire and police departments. Pollsters reportedly asked voters if they would be in favor of a 1-cent sales tax increase for 30 years, which would generate about $10 million annually, or whether they preferred a half-cent or quarter cent sales tax increase lasting for three, five or eight years.

The poll reportedly did not directly ask if residents favored a general sales tax that could be used for any city expenditures, or a specialized tax that would direct funds to a specific purpose, like street maintenance. A general sales tax increase needs a simple majority to pass, while a specialized tax requires two-thirds of voter approval to pass.

As the city council has previously discussed, the survey also quered residents on a 2 percent increase to the city's hotel tax and a real estate fee that would generate about $900 for every $300,000 in home sales.

City leaders have considered an increase to the city's current 8.25 percent sales tax rate for several years. Petaluma currently has the second lowest sales tax rate in the county. Cloverdale, Healdsburg and Windsor have the lowest rate at 8 percent, while Cotati, Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa and Sonoma have all climbed to 8.5 percent.

During the 2012 election, council members considered placing a sales tax measure on the ballot, but decided against the idea because of competing tax measures on the ballot and a lack of polling reports on the matter. After this year's city budget forecast predicted a $2.3 million general fund deficit by 2016 — largely due to increasing employee pension and health care costs — the council decided to poll residents about the possibility of increasing the city's sales tax rate.

Earlier this year, Brown said that the cost of the poll — estimated to be between $20,000 and $40,000 — would mostly be paid for by donations made to the city, though he declined to say who the donors were. But Brown did emphasize that it would not be funded by the city's police or fire unions. Healy said most of the donations came from businesses in Petaluma.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

(Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Petaluma's sales tax rate is 8 percent, when it is really 8.25 percent.)