Guest Commentary: Rainier needs a special tax

Last week Don Bennett expressed skepticism about Councilmember Barrett and me regarding a proposal to guarantee that a new tax must be structured to assure funds go toward building the Rainier cross-town connector and freeway interchange.

As someone committed to getting Rainier built, I played a key role in securing $11,300,000 during the closing moments of redevelopment funding, an important component toward completing the Rainier under-crossing.

In November Petaluma voters may be asked to approve hefty tax increases. More than two-thirds of those polled clearly want their money invested in traffic-relieving cross-town connectors and filling potholes.

Rainier has not yet been built because it is very expensive. If every anticipated development project for the next five years is approved and built, if CalTrans permits an exception to allow an interchange below current CalTrans standards, and if cost projections are accurate, Petaluma will still need $88 million from a tax measure to build Rainier. Under today’s favorable market conditions, a half-cent increase in sales tax could conceivably create 15 times cash flow or $75 million of bonding capacity. We need to watch every dollar to make sure, even after paying this huge tax increase, we have enough money to complete the Rainier cross-town connector and freeway interchange. I am in favor of providing the public with an opportunity to get what it wants, which is clearly Rainer and pothole repairs.

Therefore, Councilmember Barrett and I proposed a bifurcated sales tax. One would be a special tax which would guarantee money for Rainier and city-wide street improvements. Another ballot measure would allow voters to approve unrestricted funding for other city services.

Council members may think their job will be easier if only an unrestricted tax measure passes. In many ways, doing a good job will be more difficult. The key to meeting the public’s expectation will be having the political spine to say “no.” Otherwise, the money will soon be gone and with it our last opportunity to build Rainier.

Saying “no” is rarely pleasant. To assure that money is there for Rainier, there may need to be no pay raises, staffing increases, and the same for a long list of other wishes. The answer is going to have to consistently be “no,” or the money needed to provide promised traffic relief won’t be available.

Rather than trusting council members for many years to come to say “no,” I would rather trust the voters to recognize the distinct advantages of a balanced approach with two taxes together offering greater protections and the ability to sunset one as soon as possible.

There will undoubtedly be a campaign against any tax increase. It is my opinion that only offering voters an unrestricted tax, as a blank check for future council members, will prove much more difficult to defend.

If a restricted tax were presented by the city council and it were to pass, it would guarantee the Rainier project funding; while an unrestricted tax simply does not, which unfortunately is the direction the majority of the council chooses to take. The worst scenario is not failing to pass a tax, the worst scenario is passing a deceptive tax which fails to build the long-promised Rainier project that a majority of the public wants and believe they are paying for. In simple terms, Councilmember Barrett and I trust the voters to be informed and to have the ability to recognize the best tax proposal, which is unquestionably a restricted tax that places their money in a lock box that cannot be spent in contrast to their wishes. That is how you guarantee the Rainier cross-town connector will get built.

All of these reasons and more are why both Councilmember Barrett and I supported offering voters a choice including a clearly defined tax which could deliver to the public what they want: the Rainier cross-town connector, its freeway interchange and sidewalk-to-sidewalk street repair.

(David Glass is the mayor of Petaluma, and is currently running for re-election)