Voters gave Sacramento a tax windfall. Here’s what must happen next so it isn’t squandered

By approving Measure U on Tuesday, Sacramento gave a vote of confidence – and about $100 million a year – to City Hall. But that gesture of trust from voters must be kept, not squandered, as the City Council decides how to spend the sales tax money.

This windfall won’t come along again anytime soon and cannot be wasted. The struggling neighborhoods and residents who were promised help from Measure U must be heard and aided.

City officials also shouldn’t take the positive vote as permission to avoid some difficult choices ahead – to find less expensive ways to deliver services and to control labor costs, for example. Otherwise, rising pension payments could quickly eat into this windfall, leaving less for what was promised to residents.

Leading up to Tuesday’s election, there was more consensus on renewing the original Measure U — the half-cent sales tax passed by voters in 2012 to bring back police, fire and parks staff and services cut during the Great Recession.

The money for poorer neighborhoods – along with cash for affordable housing, job training and economic development – is supposed to come from an additional half cent in the new Measure U, which will bring the total sales tax in Sacramento to 8.75 percent starting April 1. That was the focus of the campaign.

But promises made during the campaign are not binding, as city officials kept Measure U a general tax so that they needed only a simple majority for approval. The final decisions on spending are up to the City Council.

The measure appears to have passed rather comfortably, with 54 percent of the vote as of Wednesday morning and support across most of the city. It failed, however, in a few wealthier neighborhoods, including East Sacramento and the Pocket, which is rather miserly.

The passage of Measure U is a big win for Mayor Darrell Steinberg. He put his political capital on the line, pushing the council to put it on the ballot, and it paid off.

Even without “strong mayor” powers, Steinberg is in firm control of City Hall and of the city’s fortunes. But that means if all the new money doesn’t produce the results for Sacramento he promised, then it’s on him.

The next step for the mayor and the City Council must be to find good people to serve on a new citizens commission that will not only review how the city spends the Measure U tax proceeds, but also recommend how the money should be used to support inclusive economic development – an issue that surfaced during the protests following the police killing of Stephon Clark in March.

A diverse, representative and credible committee will go a long way to reassure neighborhood and advocacy groups that are rightly skeptical that the money will help the people who need it most.

By building up that trust, Sacramentans can be more confident that Measure U really is worth the higher taxes they will pay.

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