Council to hear options for November sales tax measure

MARTINEZ, Calif. – Martinez City Council will consider options for a November sales tax measure at Wednesday night’s special meeting. One alternative would ask voters to approve a general tax that would support a variety of public services, while another version would be a special tax to fund public safety.

City staff will ask the Council which direction it would prefer, said Assistant City Manager Anne Cardwell.

Consideration of a ballot measure began after the April 4 meeting, when the Council received an update on the General Fund forecast, the first report after an analysis from Bartel and Associates in February said costs of the California Public Employees Retirement Service (CalPERS) would be greater than what was anticipated when the Fiscal Year 2017-19 budget was adopted.

“It is now projected that the city will see an increase of approximately $1.5 million in costs over the next three years,” Cardwell wrote. Since the Bartel analysis report, CalPERS has shortened the amortization period for incorporating investment losses and gains into the annual costs to member agencies, such as Martinez.

“The extent of the impact of this change is not yet known,” she wrote, “but it is known that this will further increase future pension costs for the city beyond what was illustrated in the Bartel analysis.”

Anticipating a needed “course correction” for the Fiscal Year 2019-21 budget, city employees promised a forecast update in summer, and during the June 20 meeting, they reminded the Council that to maintain essential city services such as public safety and to modernize such key departments as Public Works, Martinez would need “a fiscally viable plan,” she wrote.

Since the April 4 meeting, city employees have been researching revenue options through voter polls and the city contracted FM3 to determine voter support for a sales tax measure.

The agency conducted 501 telephone and online interviews from June 5 to 11. The surveys showed that in 2008, half of those surveyed thought the city was going in the right direction and 24 percent thought it was on the wrong track.

This year, 59 percent believe the city is on the right track, and those who think it is going in the wrong direction dropped to 19 percent. In both cases, the rest were undecided or unfamiliar with city operations.

Martinez Police received an 83 percent approval rating during the survey, better than the city’s overall approval rating of 66 percent, the same as in 2008, and the Council’s approval rating of 54 percent, down 4 points from 2008.

Martinez quality of life generally gets high marks, improving from 78 percent in 2015 to 85 percent in 2018.

Homelessness is a top concern, with 62 percent calling it a serious problem. Street conditions came next, with 58 percent viewing them as a challenge. Residents also had worries about drug and alcohol abuse and the cost of housing, and in declining order, had concerns about rising gasoline prices, local government waste and inefficiency, motorists who speed on local streets, school safety and the cost of benefits for public employees, quality of schools, cuts in city services, flooding in winter, police emergency response time, general crime, trowth and development, the amount of local taxes, a lack of parks and open space and traffic congestion.

The survey showed 56 percent of residents are unaware November’s elections for City Council members no longer will be done through at-large voting, despite multiple public hearings, local news outlet coverage and multiple social media comments.

Another 16 percent think the Council seats currently held by Vice Mayor Lara DeLaney and Councilmember Debbie McKillop still would be through at-large votes.

Only 28 percent knew the city changed to by district voting this year after the city was threatened with a lawsuit by a Malibu attorney who claimed Martinez violated the California Voting Rights Act and prevented protected minorities from getting their preferred candidates elected.

No city or public agency has successfully challenged such accusations. Martinez Unified School District Board of Education received a virtually identical letter and also switched to by-district voting.

The survey showed an improvement in perception about public safety. Fewer than half believe it is difficult to recruit and retain police officers.

However, officers have said until sworn personnel received an additional raise this year, the force had been losing officers and academy graduates showed no interest in working in Martinez. Chief Manjit Sappal said last week that of 100 applicants, perhaps one or two might qualify and be a good match in this city.

Almost half of those questions said Martinez’s money is well-managed; a quarter worried that the city is on the brink of a shortfall, and three out of five voters agreed Martinez needs additional funding sources.

The same percentage said they would support a general-purpose sales tax, and renters and people of color showed even greater enthusiasm.

Seven of every 10 voters said they would support a tax specifically for public safety. Support for the specific tax was broader across multiple groups and higher among Republicans than the general tax, Again, people of color and renters said they were “very likely” to support the tax, and those earning $120,000 or less were more supportive than those with higher incomes. A half-cent tax garnered more support than a quarter-cent tax.

Keeping response times short, preventing violent crimes, repairing roads and requiring that sales tax revenues to be spent locally were important to those surveyed. But so are maintaining parks, neighborhood patrols, youth, senior and recreation programs; reducing public nuisance issues, including homelessness; upgrading storm drains to prevent pollution; preventing cuts to drug and alcohol abuses enforcement and prevention and protecting natural areas and open spaces.

Other concerns in descending order were increasing compensation to recruit and retain experienced police officers, maintaining the Rankin Aquatic Center, city ballparks and athletic fields; providing police officer support to local schools; maintaining the city’s emergency reserves; providing support to homeless people; preventing reductions in city services; upgrading storm drains; preventing use of financial reserves, employing traffic calming projects and maintaining median landscaping.

Complicating the Council’s decision is the California Business Roundtable initiative that would require retroactively a two-thirds affirmative vote to pass tax measures.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting, Finance Director David Glasser will give a new fiscal forecast that incorporates the mid-cycle budget adjustments approved June 20.

The Council will meet at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Council Chamber of Martinez City Hall, 525 Henrietta St.

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