Petaluma officials are hoping that voter’s positive sentiment toward police and firefighters after October’s wildfires will carry over to the ballot box this November.
Faced with spiking pension costs, deferred maintenance and lagging staffing levels, the city council is considering asking voters to approve a sales tax increase to support public safety and help pay pension costs. Also on the table is an increase in taxes charged for stays in hotel beds and permitted short-term vacation rentals. Council members and city staff plan to educate voters about both options before making decisions about crafting a ballot measure this summer ahead of the fall election.
“What we found coming out of fires, and it’s no secret to anyone, is that our firefighters and our police, our public safety people — as everyone in the counties did — did an outstanding job of trying to save structures and keep that fire contained despite what it was,” City Manager John Brown said at a Monday council meeting. “There was a huge outpouring of goodwill and still continues to be for public safety … It looked like it might be an opportunity to put a public safety tax on the ballot.”
A ½-cent increase in sales tax could generate between $6 million and $6.5 million a year, Brown said. Pensions tied to public safety employees currently cost about $800,000 a year, and he said the rest of the funds could go toward mending the ailing departments.
Staffing at the fire department has remained the same as pre-recession levels, with 58 full-time personnel, according to Director of Human Resources Amy Reeve. Police staffing has dropped from 102.5 full time employees in the 2007-08 fiscal year to 91.7 this year, she said.
“We’re running at a minimum staffing level in both our police and fire departments and that is creating real problems when it comes to scheduling,” Brown said. “People are working a lot of overtime. It’s almost mandatory in some cases that they work that overtime and that’s not a sustainable situation going forward. We haven’t had the money to put into equipment, vehicle replacement or construction and so all those systems are in sore need of repair or replacement and we need staffing.”
Additional hotels are expected to come online in the city soon, and a 2 percent increase to the city’s current 10 percent transient occupancy tax, or TOT, could net $870,000 a year, according to a staff report.
But, a February poll of more than 1,000 voters conducted by Oakland-based FM3 research showed that putting the two tax measures on the same ballot would likely doom them both.
The survey of likely voters, administered online and by telephone, also showed that voters are largely out of touch with the city’s fiscal woes.
Voters view traffic and potholes as their biggest concerns, while three in five respondents saw a need for additional funding for city services. Only 36 percent of those surveyed felt it was “very accurate” or “somewhat accurate” that the city is on the brink of a budget shortfall.
The city is in fact speeding toward a fiscal cliff, with a $37.1 million deficit projected by 2026, according to staff projections.
“You do have a bit of a tough community in terms of that they really need to be educated on these things,” FM3 Senior Researcher Lucia Del Puppo said. “Sometimes, it doesn’t matter and there’s a part of the community that has a negative connotation with taxation.”