Tough decisions on tax measures

Petaluma voters have a little less than three months to make a slew of decisions on who they would like to see represent them at the national, state and local level, while concurrently deciding numerous, and sometimes complicated, state, countywide, and local tax measures. It’s the tax measures that will be among the most confusing and potentially contentious matters to decide, so voters are well-advised to begin doing their homework early.

In addition to a state water bond measure still being assembled in Sacramento’s legislative sausage factory ahead of tomorrow’s deadline, Petaluma voters will face the following tax measures on the Nov. 4 ballot:

n A countywide $410 million bond measure for facility and technology upgrades at Santa Rosa Junior College that will cost an average property owner $67 annually for up to 30 years. The measure requires over 55 percent voter approval to win.

n A countywide ballot measure that would raise $100 million for local libraries over the next decade through a sales tax increase of one-eighth of a cent. The aim of the measure is to restore hours at the 13 branches countywide, including the Petaluma Library, while also upgrading facilities. Its approval requires a two-thirds majority.

n A proposed Petaluma city tax measure calling for a permanent one cent general sales tax increase to fund “street and sidewalk maintenance and repair, traffic improvements like the Rainier Crosstown Connector/Interchange, flood protection, storm drainage, vehicle replacement, restoring public safety positions, and public facilities improvements.” The tax would raise approximately $10 million annually and would make Petaluma’s sales tax rate, at 9.25 percent, the highest in the county, along with Cotati’s. The measure requires a 50 percent plus one majority to win passage. It’s promised that quarterly reports will show where the revenue is being spent, and there is also talk of appointing an oversight committee to monitor expenditures.

Until Tuesday, it was expected that the county would also place a quarter cent general sales tax measure on the ballot for purpose of raising $20 million annually to repair and upgrade county and city roads. But simmering opposition from two city councils, including Petaluma’s, compelled county supervisors to shift the date of that election to March of 2015 to avoid possible defeat amidst the existence of up to seven other competing tax measures countywide.

A few months ago, Petaluma voters were generous in approving two bond measures funding an extensive list of repairs, infrastructure renovations and technology upgrades in both of the city’s elementary and high school districts. Both bond measures were abundantly clear on how the money would be spent to improve public education, so a large majority of voters found it easy to support them given the priority residents here have always placed on kids and education.

But whether Petaluma voters will be similarly inclined to support the SRJC bond measure just 12 years after approving a $251 million bond measure to improve local college facilities is not clear. Nor will it be a slam dunk for more than two-thirds of voters to approve a sales tax increase for libraries.

But the biggest and potentially most controversial tax measure facing Petalumans this fall will be the one-cent sales tax increase.

With a general sales tax measure, it’s impossible to know exactly how tax revenues will be spent. Unlike a specific sales tax measure -- which requires two-thirds voter approval to pass and for which funds are designated for specific items like road repairs -- a general sales tax measure needs only a simple majority to pass. With a general tax measure, monies raised may be spent in whatever way a particular city council majority desires.

Results of a citywide poll earlier this year confirmed that the two biggest concerns for Petaluma voters are the deplorable condition of city streets and traffic congestion. These two longstanding municipal problems were ranked well ahead of all other issues raised in the questionnaire, leading the consultant who performed the poll to advise that the city could win passage of a tax increase if the money raised is used to fix streets and implement new traffic congestion relief measures, such as construction of the long-awaited Rainier crosstown connector.

But the way the current ballot measure is being written, monies can also be used to hire new police officers and fireman; build a new firehouse, police station or city hall; install a new storm drainage system or flood control project; or buy new patrol cars and fire trucks. If the money is spent primarily for such uses, it could mean little or none is left for street repair or the Rainier interchange.

In an opinion column in last week’s Argus-Courier authored by City Councilmen Mike Healy and Mike Harris, the pair pledged to “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.” While we very much appreciate their commitment to these important projects, there exists a marked lack of unity among existing council members on how new tax revenues should be spent. Some council members are no fans of Rainier. Also, following November’s election we could be looking a very different city council come January, so it’s anyone guess as to how the money will be spent in future years.

Voters will be looking for assurances that if they vote for the tax increase, Rainer will get built and the streets will be fixed.

Unfortunately, as written, this ballot measure cannot provide such assurances.