Sales tax plan for projects including soccer stadium and zoo is tabled

Saying they didn’t have enough time to build their case, a group of local organizations said Friday they had shelved a proposal to raise Sacramento County’s sales tax to help pay for a new professional soccer stadium, improvements to the Sacramento Zoo and other projects.

Backers said the proposal, which would have raised the tax by one-eighth of a cent, is off the table for this year and won’t go on the November ballot. The idea is likely to be revived in the foreseeable future, although “I’m not sure in what form,” said Warren Smith, president of the Sacramento Republic FC soccer team and a leading proponent of the tax plan.

The tax increase would have raised an estimated $25 million in the first year for a host of community projects. Local governments would have gotten a share of the proceeds, too.

Smith and others said they were running out of time to bring a concrete plan to the county Board of Supervisors. The supervisors are entering budget deliberations and signaled that they needed additional time to scrutinize the tax proposal. Putting the idea on the November ballot would have required support from at least four of the five supervisors, and their vote was required by early August. If the plan did make the ballot, it would have required a two-thirds supermajority to pass.

“The biggest reason is timing, the timing to build the best coalition you can build,” said Dianna Poggetto, executive director of the American River Parkway Foundation, which stood to collect $4 million a year in tax proceeds. “We’re not organized enough to see it go on the ballot in November.”

Besides the parkway foundation, other potential recipients of funding included the zoo, the B Street Theatre’s expansion project and the proposed Powerhouse science museum north of downtown. Other nonprofits would have been invited to compete for funds from a $4.5 million pool, and there was $10 million earmarked for local governments. Both sums would have expanded as tax revenue grew.

Despite the broad disbursement of money, political strategists said the proposed soccer stadium loomed as a likely lightning rod for criticism of the tax plan.

While the stadium would have received only $3 million a year, or 12 percent of the first year’s proceeds, the tax hike might have run into trouble with voters wary of putting public money into a pro sports facility, particularly following the Sacramento City Council’s vote last month to contribute $255 million to the new Kings arena. The Kings subsidy relies on a bond issue and not a tax increase, and did not require voter approval.

Republic FC, playing its inaugural season in the minor leagues, wants a new 20,000-seat stadium in order to graduate to Major League Soccer. A site has yet to be determined. Because of interest costs, the tax hike would have generated about $30 million toward construction; the remaining $90 million or so needed would have come from private investors.

Smith said tax-hike backers didn’t start circulating the plan among the Board of Supervisors and other county officials until about two weeks ago. One reason was the pending vote in the City Council on the Kings arena. “We wanted them to complete their efforts” before proceeding, Smith said.

By the time the tax proposal surfaced, the county supervisors began pressing for more information.

“We didn’t know enough details,” said board chairman Jimmie Yee, who considered himself generally supportive of the tax increase. “There were a lot of questions.”

Even with the tax increase doomed for this year, Smith said he remains confident Republic FC can build a stadium to MLS standards. “We’ll figure it out,” he said.

Other backers of the tax plan said they want to continue to press on with some sort of funding proposal in the near future to support nonprofits and other civic amenities.

“We can’t really give up,” said Dennis Mangers, a prominent legislative staff member and nonprofit supporter who had been working on the tax hike. “The conversations will continue.”

He said he was pleased by a poll earlier this year, commissioned by the architects of the tax plan, that showed 66 percent support for the proposal.

Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen, another supporter, said he’s concerned about abandoning the plan for 2014 because voters might be wrestling with other tax hikes in upcoming elections, including a countywide transportation tax in 2016. City voters in 2018 might be asked to extend the sales tax increase they approved two years ago.

“It would be important not to lose this moment,” Hansen said. Without the tax revenue, “we don’t have a way to really support the zoo and some of these other endeavors.”

But architects of the proposed tax increase said they had little choice but to put the brakes on for now. “It is better to write a strong, politically viable plan than to rush something to the ballot in November,” said political consultant Jeff Raimundo, vice president of the zoo’s board of directors.

The county’s tax rate is already among the highest in the region. The plan that was being floated would have raised it to 8.125 percent. In the cities of Sacramento and Galt, the rate would have climbed to 8.625 percent.

Area voters have been reluctant to pay for pro sports facilities. A 2006 plan to raise county sales taxes by a quarter-cent to pay for a new Kings arena was overwhelmingly defeated even though roughly half the money was supposed to go for roads, libraries and other community projects.

That plan was likely doomed anyway when the Maloof family, which owned the Kings at the time, withdrew its support.