The Sacramento City Council moved forward Thursday with placing a sales tax increase on the November ballot.
Following an hourlong debate, a majority of council members said they support placing a half-percentage-point increase in the city sales tax before voters. The council will finalize the ballot language Tuesday in a vote that will represent little more than a formality.
Mayor Kevin Johnson was attending a U.S. Conference of Mayors event in Philadelphia and was absent from Thursday's council debate. He has already expressed opposition to the plan.
In placing the measure on the ballot, City Hall is seeking to ride a wave of increased voter support for local tax measures across the state.
All eight California cities that sought general sales tax increases in the June primary election were successful, a continuation of a trend that began a decade ago.
What's more, a poll conducted by Sacramento officials this spring showed roughly 70 percent of city voters approved of a tax increase to fund core services such as police officers, firefighters and parks.
Additional tax revenue is necessary, city officials said, to reverse years of economic spiraling. Since a peak in 2007, city sales tax revenue has dropped by nearly $7 million, to $62.7 million budgeted for the current fiscal year.
The City Council will float a general sales tax measure before the voters, requiring a simple majority for passage. City officials had also discussed a special purpose tax, but that plan which would require two-thirds approval from voters never received much traction.
Most council members expressed support for a half-percentage-point increase, which would bump the city's sales tax rate to 8.25 percent tied with Galt for the highest in the region. That hike would bring in an estimated $28 million a year, nearly twice the deficit the city addressed for the current fiscal year.
The council has also discussed a quarter-percentage-point hike.
But, said Councilman Steve Cohn, "there's just not enough we could do with $15 million" that the smaller increase would generate.
"We really need to get our head above water," said Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy. "And this is the only way we're going to do it."
Councilwoman Angelique Ashby provided tepid support for asking the voters whether they want the increase, but questioned the timing of the measure.
She said she "would like to be further along with pension reform" before seeking a tax initiative. And she wondered whether the council's decision to place a measure on the November ballot seeking to create a commission charged with exploring changes to the city charter a plan that will cost thousands of dollars might turn voters off to the tax measure.
Local tax observers said the city has a good shot at passing the tax measure.
Mike Madrid, a political strategist who advised the League of California Cities for 10 years on improving city success rates passing tax increases, said voters are far more likely to accept local tax hikes than they are statewide measures.
A Field Poll released earlier this month showed 54 percent of voters supported Gov. Jerry Brown's initiative to increase the state sales tax and income tax on the state's highest earners.
"At the state level, people just don't trust the money is going to go where (state officials) say it will," Madrid said. "Californians up and down the state want the services. Service need is not the issue. The issue is whether the people believe the tax is going to do what the politicians say it's going to do."
City officials are attempting to address those concerns.
Councilman Kevin McCarty proposed that a sales tax increase in Sacramento include a six-year sunset period, annual audits of the spending and the creation of a citizens' oversight committee.
Madrid added that if city officials rely upon statements that the tax revenue is necessary to restore essential services, their plan could be in danger.
"If they use scare tactics, that's not enough," he said.
But the argument that the tax hike is necessary has already begun.
Steve Crouch, a district representative for Local 39 City Hall's largest union said a tax increase would help "get Sacramento back on its feet again."
"It's time to rebuild Sacramento, and the best way to do that is to create new revenue sources," he said.
Not everyone is enamored with the proposal.
Members of the business community, including the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, have expressed concern that a tax hike in the city would drive business to neighboring communities.
City resident Henry Harry was among those Thursday speaking in opposition of a general purpose sales tax, saying he was worried that the revenue wouldn't fund core services alone.
"A general sales tax could be used to fund maybe another arena study, maybe it might be used to settle a lawsuit," he said.