Guest Commentary: Sales tax dollars will build Rainier

We write in response to the flurry of commentary in last week’s edition opposing the sales tax measure that the City Council has placed on the ballot, including pieces by Mayor David Glass and former Councilmember Bryant Moynihan.

None of the arguments raised by this odd alliance are anything new. We write to highlight some basic points.

The new Target and Friedman’s centers – both approved on split votes – do improve sales tax revenues. Even with them, though, total general fund revenues this fiscal year will be $38.7 million, down from $48.2 million before the recession.

Petaluma has 15 fewer police officers than we did in 2007. The street crimes, drugs and school resource assignments have been eliminated. We can’t afford to regularly replace fire trucks, ambulances or police cars as the old ones wear out. The downtown fire station is seismically unsafe and needs to be replaced. The list goes on.

Nobody needs to be reminded of the condition of our streets. The costs of the Rainier project are included in development impact fees, but those funds are only received as new development occurs.

The sales tax measure gives citizens an opportunity to dramatically improve service levels across a range of areas.

Mayor Glass’ angst stems from funding Rainier. Several years ago, the two of us signed the ballot arguments in support of Measure S, the pro-Rainier advisory measure. Voters approved it with 72 percent of the vote. Glass signed the ballot arguments against Measure S, arguing that Rainier would take out some trees and wouldn’t relieve traffic congestion. The good news is that he has abandoned those silly arguments. The bad news is that now he wants to love Rainier to death.

Glass has now reinvented himself as Rainier’s most ardent supporter. Happily ignoring the adage about not allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good, he claims that only a special tax “lock box” would ensure funding for Rainier. He fails to mention that the special tax he advocates for Rainier needs a difficult-to-achieve two-thirds vote to pass, as opposed to the simple majority needed for the general tax that will actually be on the ballot.

The council majority strongly supports Rainier, as does the community. We will work tirelessly to make sure that the budget priorities listed in the tax measure – with streets and Rainier at the top of the list – get funded and achieved.

The ongoing pension issue does not provide a good reason to fail to move forward. The city’s pension obligations are in our budget forecasts and must be paid. Former Councilman Moynihan’s long-professed goal is to force the city into bankruptcy. He cites 3-year-old data on the city’s unfunded pension liability. But since then, CalPers earned 12.5 percent on its investments in fiscal year 2012-13, and 18.4 percent in FY 2013-14, thus significantly reducing the unfunded liability. The system is starting to correct itself, as it is designed to do.

We will continue to work with our state legislators to reduce the continuing pension deficit – without tapping revenues from the new sales tax – but further pension reforms primarily need to be led at the state level.

Another writer complains that city employees are overpaid. Actually, the question of where our salaries are vis-a-vis comparable cities is complicated, especially because our employees have received no raises in years. But both of us pledge not to use new sales tax funds for pay raises. Those need to come – when appropriate – from existing revenue sources, which the city can grow by encouraging economic activity. For instance, property taxes are slowly rebounding with property values, and two new hotels want to come to town.

Which leads to an important final point. The council added key safeguards to ensure transparency and accountability: the sales tax proceeds and expenditures will be segregated in the city budget; quarterly reports will be issued to the community; and a citizen oversight committee will be appointed.

(Mike Harris and Mike Healy are members of the Petaluma City Council)