Citing a new poll that shows a strong majority of Sacramento residents support a local sales tax hike to fund core city services, the City Council on Tuesday directed staff to move forward with exploring a tax measure for the November ballot.
While council members are not expected to make a final decision on placing a tax measure on the ballot until July, their expressions of support for such a measure Tuesday sets up a potential showdown with Mayor Kevin Johnson, who said earlier in the day he was not inclined to support a tax measure.
"I'm not one to be inclined to think that a tax is the automatic best thing to do," Johnson said. "I think economic development is important. We've got to find ways to grow revenue. The public is looking at its government agencies very closely and we're trying to restore faith and confidence."
But after years of deficits, layoffs and service cuts at City Hall, several council members said they think city residents are ready to consider new taxes to bolster funding for police protection, firefighters and parks. A poll commissioned by City Manager John Shirey in April showed roughly 70 percent of city voters would support a general purpose sales tax increase.
"People are not only interested in having this conversation, they're also interested in voting yes to restore core city services," said Councilman Kevin McCarty.
The tax debate is unfolding as the city enters its sixth straight year of deficits. Driven by plummeting sales and property tax revenue, the city has slashed 1,200 workers and filled a cumulative deficit of $219 million since 2007.
This year, the City Council is considering laying off nearly 100 public safety workers. Last year, dozens of police officers lost their jobs.
"If we (craft a tax ballot measure), it needs to go to services," said Councilman Darrell Fong. "That's been a strong message from the people. They want to see the money spent putting cops back on the street and to augment what we've cut."
Council members started hammering out details of a possible tax measure during a special budget session Tuesday afternoon. Though there was no formal vote, several council members said they wanted Shirey to press forward with a tax measure.
Under a proposal gaining momentum with the council, the city would ask voters to approve a half-percentage-point or quarter-percentage-point increase to the city's 7.75 percent sales tax. A half-percentage-point increase would generate an estimated $26 million a year.
At 8.25 percent, the city's sales tax would match Galt's for the highest in the region. However, Sacramento's rate would still be lower than some cities of similar size, including Oakland and Long Beach.
Though several council members talked about wanting to raise funds for public safety, the council appears to favor a "general purpose" tax increase, which would require a simple majority approval from voters. That revenue would go to the city's general fund, which pays for an array of services. By contrast, "special purpose" tax measures such as a "soda tax" specifically for health programs require two-thirds voter approval.
Some council members said the city should deal with its deficit for the upcoming fiscal year before a tax debate takes place. They also said a tax measure would be more palatable to city residents if public safety workers and other city employees agree to contribute more toward their pensions.
"We need to demonstrate that we are running an efficient organization," said Councilman Jay Schenirer. "Once we do that, I definitely want to have the discussion."
Sacramento has had similar conversations before.
The so-called "gang tax" of 2008 failed to make it to the ballot after falling short at both the City Council and the Sacramento Board of Supervisors. Spearheaded by former Supervisor Roger Dickinson and former Mayor Heather Fargo, the quarter-percentage-point increase in the city sales tax would have generated $16 million for gang prevention and enforcement programs.
According to the firm commissioned by the city for the most recent poll, voter appetite for tax measures has increased as cities and counties have endured multiple years of service cuts.
David Metz, of the polling firm FM3, told the City Council there has been "a pretty sharp uptick in the public awareness of the impact" of those cuts and, as a result, there is "a willingness to support new revenue" proposals.
Since last year, 28 cities and counties have passed tax increases, according to state Board of Equalization figures.
Anti-tax advocates said several factors will play a role in whether Sacramento is successful in passing its own tax measure.
Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said the city's decision to spend thousands of dollars on the now collapsed arena effort "may have soured" voter sentiment toward a new tax. What's more, he said, the city could have a difficult time competing with multiple statewide tax measures also expected to appear on the November ballot.
But he wouldn't rule out a measure passing.
"I will say as a general matter, local voters tend to trust their local jurisdictions a little bit more than they trust the state," Coupal said.