Visalians Debate Sales Tax

A blue ribbon task force appointed by the Visalia City Council is investigating the possibility of raising the city’s sales tax. If the task force finds Visalia has a definite need for additional revenue, the council might put it on the ballot for the November election.

The task force will recommend whether Visalia should raise its sales tax by a quarter cent, half cent or not at all. If they decide a sales tax increase is in order, they then need to recommend how the extra revenue will be allocated.

To help make their decision, the group of 50 civic-minded members have asked for, and been inundated with, information from the city staff. By taking city tours and pouring over budgets and surveys, the blue ribbon task force will be well informed to make the best recommendation possible to the city council.

When asked when enough is enough concerning all the information requested by the committee, Harold Myers replied, “The people in this room have a real responsibility to Visalia. We are asking people to pony up $10 million.”

Three more meetings remain before the task force will make a decision. They meet every Tuesday evening and will present their recommendations to the council on July 1st at the council’s regularly scheduled meeting.

Visalians have voted for sales tax increases in the past. In 2004, they voted for Measure T, a quarter-cent tax to improve public safety. In 2006, Tulare County voted for a half-cent sales tax to improve our transportation infrastructure.

Both measures have brought in millions of dollars and improved the quality of life for Visalians. When cities do tax themselves they get a huge bang for their buck. A quarter-cent tax provides $40 per year per person at only a cost of $26. That is because 40% of Visalia’s sales taxes are paid for by non-Visalians. It is projected that a quarter-cent tax would bring in $5 million a year and a half-cent tax would bring in $10 million.

During a financial presentation by Renee Nagel, the assistant financial director, she informed the members that, for the first time in five years, Visalia is going to have a balanced budget. That may persuade some not to support a tax hike, but there are many vacant positions the city can’t fill in order to keep that budget balanced. For example, a much-needed economic development director would draw a salary of $150,000 a year. If Visalia had the same worker ratio as 20 years ago, the city would have 100 more workers. Also, according to Mike Olmos, assistant city manager, Visalia has reduced funding for infrastructure that supports economic development. He stated that Visalia needs $750,000 per year for infrastructure support.

In a survey conducted last August, 60% of Visalians said they would vote yes on a half-cent sales tax increase. When deciding what services need the most money, Visalians overwhelming say that their first three priorities are public safety, jobs and water.

The survey also pointed out that, in non-presidential or gubernatorial election years, voter turnout is very low at roughly 24%. Of those people who do vote in off-year elections, it is likely that 82% will be over 50 years old. The blue ribbon committee more than reflects the age group of likely voters. It is clear that young professionals are not going to be represented in the decision to raise taxes.

Gary Gagliolo and Janice Avila are co-chairs of the task force. Gagliolo has been very encouraged by the members’ questions and feels the city staff has given excellent presentations.

“I feel it’s going very well,” Gagliolo said. Starting in June, the task force will focus less on presentations and form break-out groups to discuss the results of a new survey and “decide if it is a go or no go.”

If the council votes to put the measure on the November ballot, city officials would have to submit the paperwork to Tulare County by August 10. To pass, the ballot measure needs to receive 50% of the vote, plus one.

Three city council seats will also be up for election in November. Those seats are currently occupied by Steve Nelson, Warren Gubler and Greg Collins.

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