Brown: Sales tax vital to keep city services

As professional pollsters begin to analyze results from last week's city sales tax telephone survey, City Manager John Brown stressed the need for additional city revenue when he pointed out that the city's projected $2.3 million deficit by 2017 vastly underestimates where Petaluma is truly headed financially.

"If we factored in all the vehicles that need replacing throughout the city, you'd see a lot more red ink in the city's expected deficit," said Brown, who expects the long term financial forecast to be finished by the end of February. "No matter what the polling results say, we're going to make it work. But without an increase in revenue, we're aren't going to have enough money to get through the next few years."

The Petaluma City Council has long considered increasing the city's 8.25 percent sales tax rate. While Petaluma cut its expenditures from $48 million in 2008 to a low of $32 million in 2012, and is poised to see an increase in sales tax revenue due to a slew of major retailers opening across town, the city still faces a major general fund deficit by 2017 — mostly due to rising employee pension and health care costs.

After hiring William Berry Campaigns to poll voters, city officials sat down with the Sacramento-based firm and crafted a 30-minute phone survey to gauge the public's reaction to increasing Petaluma's sales tax rate.

"While the city council hasn't decided exactly where money would go if a sales tax measure is passed, we've talked a lot of about the biggest needs in the city — streets, streetlights, flood protection and emergency personnel," said Brown.

Dubbed in the phone survey as the "Safe Petaluma Measure," the potential tax increase ranged from a quarter-cent up to a 1-cent boost, for anywhere from five to 30 years. If passed, a half-cent increase could generate about $5 million annually, while a 1-cent increase could generate about $10 million.

Petaluma currently has the second lowest sales tax rate in the county, tied with Sebastopol. Cloverdale, Healdsburg and Windsor are the lowest in the county at 8 percent, while Cotati, Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa and Sonoma all are at 8.5 percent.

Though most questions discussed a sales tax increase, the poll also asked residents if they would be in favor of a 2 percent hotel tax increase and a real estate fee that would generate about $900 for every $300,000 in home sales.

Brown, who wrote the survey with input from the polling firm and several city department leaders, said that the purpose of the poll was to fully understand what types of city services voters were most concerned about.

"We're giving people the opportunity to tell us what they want," said Brown. "Passing a sales tax increase measure takes a lot of work and can be costly. If it doesn't look like the tax will pass, then we don't want to spend the money or time on it."

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