Council asks staff to compose half-cent sales tax ballot measure

MARTINEZ, Calif. – Martinez City Council has asked its staff to compose documents that could put a half-cent sales tax ballot measure before voters in November.

It must review and vote on those documents July 18 and Aug. 1 if the ballot measure is to be filed with the state of California by Aug. 10.

Revenues from the general sales tax increase would go to the General fund, of which a little more than half is spent on law enforcement. The new revenues likely would be apportioned similarly.

In current General Fund spending, another 17.4 percent of the General Fund goes to public works, 12 percent to administrative services, 7.75 percent to non-departmental expenses, 6.7 percent to community development and 5.2 percent to general government, Finance Director David Glasser said.

Curt Below, of FM3 Research, Oakland, outlined the options before the Council Wednesday and provided findings from a survey of about 500 residents taken June 5-11, during which they were asked multiple questions about city finances and operations.

Several Council members have suggested a special sales tax could help the city fund the police department in order to attract and retain officers, and 70 percent of those surveyed indicated they found the specific tax more appealing, Below said.

But that isn’t the comforting margin it would appear to be, Below said. That’s because a special tax needs a supermajority of nearly 67 percent to pass.

Support for a general-purpose sales tax was lower among those surveyed, at 60 percent, but that measure would need just a simple majority vote to succeed. That means the majority vote threshold for the general sales tax is better, he explained.

The simple majority for general sales taxes’ passage might have been changed if California Proposition 26, a former November ballot initiative, had been approved by voters, the Council heard. Prop. 26 would have been effective retroactively to January and would have required even the Martinez general sales tax to garner a supermajority.

However, Prop. 26 was pulled from the election by Assembly Bill 1838, legislation signed Thursday by Governor Jerry Brown. AB 1838 bans a tax on sugared soft drinks through 2030 in exchange for pulling the supermajority requirement. Soda companies had backed Prop. 26 after voters in several cities had imposed additional taxes on their beverages.

Nearly every demographic favored the general-purpose tax, although those 50 to 64 gave it a mere 51 percent favorable rating and only half of those 75 and older liked the idea. Of voters 18 to 29, 77 percent said they’d support the tax, and 84 percent of those 30 to 39 said they would vote for it. A lower majority of those 40 to 49 and 65 to 74 aid they also supported the tax.

Support was strong among minorities, renters and those earning less than $90,000; education level didn’t seem to affect the numbers, Below said.

The specific tax received even stronger support across the board, Below said. Even so, he was worried that the specific tax might not achieve the 67 percent supermajority.

Residents’ opinion of their police is 83 percent favorable, and that of the city government in general has remained at 66 percent positive. The City Council is liked by 54 percent of those polled, down by four points from the 2008 survey.

Residents generally like living in Martinez, although they worry about homelessness, potholes and street conditions, drug and alcohol abuse and the cost of housing. Fewer are concerned by fuel prices, government inefficiency, speeders, school safety, cost of benefits for public employees and other issues.

But if those polled liked their city, they are not well-versed changes that have taken place this past year, Below’s survey discovered.

Only 28 percent know that starting in November, only the mayor’s position will be decided by at-large voting. The remaining four Council seats now are chosen by voters in four individual districts.

In fact, 16 percent thought the voting for all seats remained at large, with 56 saying they did not know how the panel members are chosen.

Ironically, those questioned in the survey were “more informed residents” and were registered voters inclined to cast ballots in November, Below added.

Fewer than half of the voters thought Martinez Police was having trouble recruiting and retaining officers, although the problem has reached such a critical point that commanders and Chief Manjit Sappal have had to go on patrols rather than attend to administrative duties simply to cover the city.

In May, the Council approved an unbudgeted mid-contract 8 percent raise of a combined $720,000 from the its reserves to make working in Martinez more attractive to recruits and to entice the city’s officers to stay in Martinez rather than seek better pay elsewhere.

Only 25 percent realize the city is facing a fiscal shortfall in the coming years, although 63 percent said there is some need for additional funding for city services. Increased costs related to city employee retirement benefits will be adding a significant burden to the city finances.

Without the additional sales tax, the city’s reserves – its “rainy day fund” – will drop from the minimum 20 percent in Fiscal Year 2018-19 to 6.7 percent in 2019-20. After that, the fund goes into negative numbers.

Without the new tax, the city would be in “a precarious position” about providing existing services, forcing Martinez to make “draconian cuts,” City Manager Brad Kilger said. He said a half-cent increase in sales taxes would be “a shot in the arm.”

Even with an additional half-cent sales tax, reserves are projected to drop to 17.1 percent by Fiscal Year 20-21, and goes lower in subsequent years if the city makes no other changes, he said.

But other changes are in the work, using technology and refining the city’s organization should make the city more productive.

“We have to address the long-term substantiality,” Kilger said.

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