Endorsements: Sacramento's sales tax hike, Measure U, deserves a 'no'

Published: Sunday, Sep. 30, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6E

Have Sacramento's basic city services like police, fire and parks taken a beating? Absolutely.

Have city officials done all they can to control labor costs and squeeze savings to preserve those services? Definitely not.

That failure is the major reason why voters should reject the city's proposal for a half-cent sales tax hike.

If Measure U on the Nov. 6 ballot passes, the city says it would use the additional $28 million a year to start restoring cuts to police, fire, parks maintenance, youth and senior services, libraries and other programs. On Tuesday, the City Council plans to establish a citizens oversight committee to make sure the money is spent correctly.

But before city officials can legitimately ask the public to pay higher taxes, they must earn trust with real action on making departments more efficient and curbing employee and retiree expenses.

There are plenty of opportunities. The city will be negotiating new contracts next year with its biggest unions, including police, the only ones not paying into their own pensions.

The city has paid consultants good money to scour for money-saving ideas, but the council hasn't followed through. Just one example: A report this year laid out nearly $8 million a year in savings in the Fire Department, largely by replacing one of two firefighters in ambulances with a civilian and going from four- to three-person crews at suburban stations.

City Hall also needs to do more to cut red tape so businesses, large and small, can expand and stay in Sacramento. The city is starving for new companies to broaden the tax base.

When – and only when – progress is made in those areas, should the city take a similar tax measure to voters, in two years or four.

Undeniably, it is a risk to wait. The city faces another $7 million budget shortfall for 2013-14. The volunteers and private money that have kept parks maintained and pools open may soon run dry. Most worrisome, the Police Department is down 150 sworn officers since 2008, and Chief Rick Braziel told The Bee's editorial board that the force reductions are allowing more crime on the streets, including an alarming spike in gun violence.

But there's also a danger to pumping more cash into a broken system. While the recession and housing crash slashed tax revenues, the city is to blame for its fiscal crisis as well. There's a real possibility that replenishing city coffers will decrease the pressure for necessary reforms.

More taxes would assuredly increase the financial pressure on many families. Many homeowners are still struggling to pay their mortgages, and they were hit in July with double-digit increases in city water and sewer rates.

Also, local businesses are rightly concerned that a higher sales tax would put them at a competitive disadvantage. Going from 7.75 percent to 8.25 percent would make Sacramento's sales tax the highest among the region's big cities, a full one percentage point above Roseville's.

Because of the state of the economy and of City Hall, the timing of this tax measure is off. By saying "no," voters can send a clear and necessary message that real reform can't wait any longer.

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