For many Sacramentans, the recession and housing crash have been a double whammy.
At the same time their personal finances took a hit, basic city services have been gutted by deep budget cuts. There are fewer police officers on patrol, fire companies are routinely "browned out" and many parks are a mess. If not for volunteers, nonprofits and businesses raising money and pitching in, it would be even worse.
Are residents now willing to pay higher sales taxes to start restoring some city services? City Council members should give them the chance to decide on Nov. 6.
Thursday night, the council is to debate a potential sales tax ballot measure. Because some key parameters need sorting out, a final vote may not come until Tuesday, the council's deadline to act.
One major choice is whether to seek a half-cent or quarter-cent increase from the current 7.75 percent.
A poll conducted for the city in April concluded that either has a good chance of passing, and there are good arguments on both sides. There's the logic that if you're going to ask for higher taxes, you might as well seek more money to restore more services. A half cent would raise about $31.4 million a year, a quarter cent $15.7 million.
But council members also need to consider that at 8.25 percent, Sacramento's sales tax would be the highest in the region, a full percentage point higher than Roseville's. Businesses are justifiably concerned.
Either way, accountability has to be paramount. Taxpayers must be absolutely confident that the proceeds would be used as intended.
It's encouraging that, in a visit Tuesday with The Bee's editorial board, council members Steve Cohn, Darrell Fong and Kevin McCarty said they were already making plans to ensure accountability of how the extra funds would be spent.
McCarty proposed an annual audit of spending reviewed by a citizen oversight committee. He and the others support a "sunset" clause so that a tax hike would automatically end after a certain number of years McCarty suggested six so voters could determine whether the proceeds are being spent wisely and whether the tax hike is still needed.
The councilmen also said that before Election Day, they want the council to draft a spending plan so voters have a clearer idea of where the money would go. The council, however, has to be careful about not being too detailed because a "specific purpose" tax would require a two-thirds majority to pass.
The council would also be trying to improve public safety without rewarding labor recalcitrance. The Sacramento Police Officers Association is the only major city employee union that hasn't agreed to pay more for pensions. The council members want to reassure voters that any tax proceeds don't fund those pension costs. They mentioned the idea of a "trigger" the Police Department would get more if the union accepts pension reform.
These are all important issues, but they shouldn't distract too much from the bottom line. Another housing boom isn't going to refill the city treasury. Growing and diversifying the local economy is a longer-term proposition.
The city could use a more immediate boost, and Sacramentans should get to say whether a sales tax increase is part of that solution.