Foon Rhee

Will fed-up Sacramento taxpayers say enough is enough?

Mayor Darrell Steinberg, center, celebrates an ownership deal for Republic FC in May. Sacramento is on the rise, but it’s also increasing fees and taxes on residents.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg, center, celebrates an ownership deal for Republic FC in May. Sacramento is on the rise, but it’s also increasing fees and taxes on residents.

Even though I’m turning gray, I swear I’m not one of those grouchy geezers who opposes every single tax hike. I’m more than willing to pay my fair share to help Sacramento thrive.

Still, when I read about a possible local bond issue or new fee to fund affordable housing, my first reaction was to grab my wallet and say, “Not again.”


After all, the city is increasing water and sewer rates. It has raised garbage collection rates. Regional wastewater rates are rising. Add it all up and by 2020, the average homeowner will be paying at least $800 more per year for basic utilities than in 2012.

On top of that, voters agreed last June to extend a parcel tax for city libraries. Oh, and don’t forget that parking meter rates went up, partly to pay for the Golden 1 Center.

Even with the excitement of living in a city on the rise, there’s only so much piling on of taxes and fees that residents can take. And City Hall has to see the bigger picture: The state’s gas tax goes up by 12 cents a gallon on Nov. 1, making the daily commute more expensive.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg says he gets it.

He knows there’s a limit to how much in taxes and fees people are willing, or able, to pay. But he argues that residents also want economic development, nice parks, beefed-up police and “to grow the city in the right way.”

“I understand the delicate balance here,” Steinberg told me.

While the 45,000-plus households in Sacramento who earn more than $100,000 a year can won’t have much trouble writing a bigger check to City Hall, every dollar matters for the 53,500 families trying to get by on less than $30,000 a year.

“There are political limits on taxation here, but housing must be in the mix,” the mayor said.

Steinberg says the proposed housing package before the Legislature – which includes a new fee on real estate transactions, plus a $4 billion bond issue in November 2018 – is a great start. But local resources must be stacked on top to make a real dent in the affordable housing shortage, he says.

Katy Grimes, president of the Sacramento Taxpayers Association, blames local officials for how they enforce restrictions on builders and says the housing shortage is “more a regulatory issue than another tax need.”

There are no details yet on the housing bond or fee. There is a lot of political research and coalition building to do first, Steinberg said.

And as the mayor knows very well, if officials aren’t persuasive enough, any housing ballot measure will fail.

“The key question for voters is always if they’re confident their money will be spent effectively for their priorities,” he told me.

Housing probably won’t be the only priority vying for voters’ favor. The local ballot in November 2018 could also include a measure to renew or make permanent Measure U, the half-cent sales tax that restored fire, police and parks budget cuts during the recession. It is generating $46 million in 2017-18 and is set to expire in March 2019.

Regional Transit and local transportation officials are expected to make a second try for a countywide half-cent, 30-year sales tax increase after a narrow defeat last November. They could argue for putting one of the measures on the June ballot, perhaps Measure U.

Steinberg will have a big say, and not just because he’s mayor. His money will also talk. He has $500,000 left in his campaign account from 2016, and has created a campaign committee that already has $100,000 in the bank.

My bet is that local tax measures will be a tough sell, regardless of how well-funded the promotional campaign. While transplants from the Bay Area may think the tax bill and cost of living in Sacramento aren’t that high, longtime residents are more likely to have sticker shock, and they’re more likely to vote.

Grimes says she’s hearing from retirees and those on fixed incomes who say they can’t afford all the fee increases and are thinking of moving out of Sacramento and perhaps California. While it’s not a mass exodus, it is steady, she said.

“They’re essentially voting with their feet, and taking their tax dollars with them,” she told me Monday.

In the next few years, the Sacramento City Unified School District could also come back to voters after a parcel tax barely lost last November. And the city could soon be seeking a rate hike for storm drainage repairs; under a bill passed by the Legislature last week, it might be able to do so without voter approval.

In part, Sacramento is paying the price for decades of not investing enough in our infrastructure. So you could argue that residents have been getting off cheap for years.

Then again, just like families with their household budgets, cities can’t have everything. You have to make difficult choices.

The ones City Hall makes will determine what kind of city Sacramento will become – and how many residents can afford to stick around to see it.

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee