Voters across California will be asked this November to pay higher sales taxes to address what county and city officials say is a worsening shortage of funds to pay for core municipal services such as road repairs, park maintenance and public safety.
Sacramento, Placer, Solano and Yolo are among more than a dozen counties with tax vote measures in the works, mostly focused on road repairs. The cities of Placerville, West Sacramento and Woodland also are working on sales tax increase proposals.
“A chronic problem we all face is there are very few communities where the growth in property and sales tax is keeping up with the cost of services,” said Woodland City Manager Paul Navazio. “In my view, this is a critical funding source.”
Woodland is looking at extending an existing half-cent sales tax for parks, street maintenance, recreational facilities, public safety programs, and to pay debt on already constructed city projects.
Under a state law in effect since 2003, cities and counties can ask voters to raise the sales tax up to 2 cents above the state minimum of 7.5 cents per dollar spent on goods. In a few counties, the allowable rate is higher.
“The state has backed off on its funding of local agencies; there is virtually no discretionary funding from the state to cities anymore,” said Michael Coleman, a fiscal adviser to the League of California Cities. “It is a different world. Cities have to face this choice.”
The November ballot provides a good opportunity to ask voters for help, city and county officials say, because voter turnout is expected to be high for the presidential race, and because an existing 2012 statewide sales tax increase of one-fourth of a cent is due to end in December.
The city of Placerville was the first in the region to officially commit this week. It submitted ballot language that would raise the sales tax by one-half cent for 20 years, with the money going to repair roads and improve the sewer and water systems.
City Manager Cleve Morris said Placerville has a $45 million maintenance deficit that the existing city budget can’t handle. “This is just maintaining our system, not building anything new,” Morris said.
While Sacramento, Placer and Solano counties are focused on ballot measures to fund transportation, Yolo officials this week said they are considering a broader measure that – in addition to fixing roads – would give more lower-income children access to preschool and tackle some of the county’s homeless problems.
The county has not yet decided whether to ask voters to approve a one-fourth cent or a one-half cent increase. It also has yet to specify how long the higher rate would last, although there has been consideration of a 10-year tax.
County planning staff plans to present answers to those questions, and to include proposed details of how the money will be spent, to the Board of Supervisors at its June 14 meeting.
When they do, representatives of the Yolo County Taxpayers Association will be there with concerns, including the possibility that the county would spend the money in some way other than it says it would.
“Nobody is explaining the details and that is the problem,” taxpayer group member Douglas Reed said. “If you want us to trust you, give us the details.”
The Yolo County plan’s most-discussed element is the portion that expands access to preschool. The program would be based in part on a pilot project underway in West Sacramento, called Universal Preschool for West Sacramento, that focuses on physical, mental and emotional health, and education.
The goal, county officials said, is to increase the number of children in preschool, not necessarily to enroll every child in preschool.
The measure has strong support already from county educators, many of whom told the board at a hearing this week that preschool is the gateway to brain development and later educational and job success. Currently, only 55 percent of Yolo County children ages 3 and 4 are enrolled in preschool programs, said Jesse Ortiz, Yolo County’s superintendent of schools.
“How do we close the achievement gap, particularly for those most at risk?” Ortiz said in testimony before the board. “One thing that comes back time and time again is the importance of preschool. This is a very unique opportunity for Yolo County.”
The board voted 4-1 earlier this week to have the staff draw up more details.
Supervisor Matt Rexroad dissented, saying he thinks the three spending categories are being put into the measure without a rigorous analysis of the county’s true unfunded needs. Rexroad suggested other potential spending needs, including preservation of agricultural land and public safety.
He also said the proposal is too vague at this point for his support. “There is nothing in here today that is a plan,” he said. “This is a general concept to raise money.”
The race to the ballot could create a logjam, which could turn off voters in some areas. The Yolo County measure, for example, may conflict with the ballot efforts by West Sacramento and Woodland.
West Sacramento is considering a permanent one-fourth cent general sales tax increase to provide money for road repairs, bike and pedestrian trails, reducing homelessness, youth education and career programs, and enhancing internet access.
City officials said they are in talks with the county about a potential compromise so that the two measures don’t compete with each other on the ballot, potentially causing one or both to fail.
“Having to vote on a tax measure two times with both of us saying it was for roads, kids and homeless might be a challenge for voters who will already be exhausted by the time they get to this portion of the ballot,” said West Sacramento Mayor Chris Cabaldon.