Blue Ribbon Task Force Says No New Taxes

The Blue Ribbon Task Force Committee decided Tuesday, June 18th, not to recommend an increase in Visalia’s sales tax. The committee was appointed by the Visalia City Council to investigate the possibility of putting a sales tax measure on the November ballot. After seven weeks of presentations and in-depth discussions, they concluded that not only did the city not need the extra revenue, but the ballot measure would most likely not pass.

Of the 38 committee members in attendance, the vote was 27 for and 11 against recommending that there be no tax increase. A subcommittee will present its findings to the city council during a work session on July 15. The public is invited to attend, and many of the Blue Ribbon Task Force members plan on coming. The committee’s decision is only a recommendation, however. The Visalia City Council can still vote to put a tax measure on the November ballot, but it is highly unlikely that the council would go against the committee’s recommendation.

The task force started its research by touring major city facilities such as City Hall, Police Headquarters and the Public Works Administration. Deputy City Manager Leslie Caviglia and Community Relations Manager Nancy Loliva worked overtime to prepare documents and Power Point presentations to educate the group about the city’s financial condition. During the last meeting, the task force took the time to acknowledge that it would not have been able to come to a decision without the city staff’s hard work.

The information presented during the city tours and committee meetings illustrated Visalia’s apparent need for additional revenue. City staffing was at 1975 levels, salaries had stagnated and there have been no capital improvements to aging facilities and equipment for the last five years. It was also pointed out that Visalia needed to increase the number of police officers and fire fighters. Ironically, Visalia let go of its head of Economic Development, Ricardo Noguera, who successfully recruited new businesses that increased Visalia’s tax base. The final financial blow came directly from the California state government. Every year the state raids the city coffers of $10.2 million.

A few committee members came out against any tax increase. But the mood in the room was definitely leaning towards recommending a new sales tax after being educated on the city’s needs.

The tide started to turn when Renee Nagel, assistant finance director, presented the midyear budget report and showed that for the first time in five years, Visalia would have a balanced budget. After the final numbers were crunched a few weeks later, it was discovered that Visalia would actually have a $1.8 million surplus.

The 2013-14 fiscal year budget provides for many of the city’s objectives without needing the proposed tax. Salaries will increase, capital improvements have been approved and the General Fund Emergency Reserve is going to be restored to pre-recession levels.

The 2013 survey results were the final straw. Surveying those who would likely vote in an off-year election, the committee members discovered that only 51% would lean towards approving a quarter-cent sales tax hike. Taking into consideration the margin of error of plus or minus five points, any sales tax measure would have most likely failed.

In the final analysis, the task force agreed that revenues do not meet the city’s needs in the short term. But in the long term, they believed the revenues would continue to rise at the same pace as they are currently.

It was also pointed out in the final meeting that the city council, like the task force, is not united on the issue either. Vice Mayor Steve Nelsen was the only council member to stick his neck out last February and vote against forming the Blue Ribbon Task Force Committee. He felt it was hypocritical to vigorously campaign against Calwater raising its rates and then advocate for a tax hike. After being informed of the projected budget surplus, Warren Gubler came out strongly against a sales tax measure. “I’d rather leave the money in the pockets of our local citizens, and give the economy time to mend and to replenish city coffers,” he said.

Some members of the task force strongly disagreed with the subcommittee’s recommendation. “If we don’t pay now we will pay later,” one committee member said. “I can’t believe that everyone saw what the city presented and could think that we don’t need the tax. We can overcome the 49% who will not vote for the tax. But we need to go to work.”

Another member commented, “The problems need to be addressed today. We can’t just hope that things get better because we don’t have that much time before the population increases.”

But the rest of the comments were overwhelmingly against a tax increase, which prompted the committee to take a vote after debating for less than an hour. After eight meetings, two city tours, analyzing survey results, and a binder full of documents, the Blue Ribbon Task Force had completed its duty and came to an agreement not to recommend the city put a sales tax on the November ballot.

Most of the documents that the Blue Ribbon Committee used to make its decision can be found on the city’s website under the heading “City Government.”

At the end of the night, Mayor Amy Shuklian thanked all the committee members and reminded them with a chuckle that she has all of their phone numbers and addresses in case she needs them to volunteer. Assistant City Manager Mike Olmos gave a heartfelt thanks to all the committee members. “You learned a lot but we also learned a lot also,” he said. “All your hard work was very helpful. I met a lot of great people and it was a lot of fun.”

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