At the May 16 Visalia City Council meeting, members reviewed options on how to spend the revenue from a possible sales tax measure. The city council has until late July to make up its mind whether or not to put the sales tax measure on the November ballot. Because of a loss of revenue and state take-aways, the city council members are leaning towards putting the tax measure on the ballot to close the city’s budget gap.
Eric Frost, Deputy City Manager, said that the two main concerns of voters are accountability and identifiability. In a professional survey of Visalia residents, voters said that it was important that the city do with the tax dollars what it says it will do. Accountability measures such as a spending plan, an oversight committee, and audits would be necessary for the measure to pass.
Visalia residents consistently have expressed their desire that any extra revenue go toward the big three: streets, fire and the police, said Frost. The city council will also be consider giving 5% of the tax revenues to maintain the city’s parks and trail system.
In a presentation by Police Chief Jason Salazar he said that there is a clear need for increased revenue.
In 2008 the city had 140 police officers. Even though the population has increased and the challenges are greater, the city still has the same number of sworn officers. Salazar said that the calls concerning the homeless have increased from 200 a year to 3600. Calls for 911 have increased to 14,000 a year and response times have increased from 5.6 minutes to seven minutes to arrive at the scene.
The suggested spending plan allocates 30% of the tax revenue to the police department. That would add up to $6 million more a year. Salazar’s plan for the revenue is to increase the police force by 82 to 87 sworn officers over 15 years. Salazar said that the desired proportion of police to population is 1.9 per 1000 residents. By contrast, Visalia has 1.03 per 1000 and Fresno has 1.46. If the tax measure passes Visalia will have 1.33 per 1000 at the end of 15 years.
Salazar said that if the tax measure does not pass the police department will have to go back to basics. “We will have to change how we do business and reduce services.” Such services that would be eliminated would be responding to non-injury traffic accidents, vandalism, and reports of stolen property.
Adam Peck, executive director of the Tulare County Workforce Investment Board, gave a review of Visalia’s street maintenance needs. He pointed out that, because the revenue from the gas tax has decreased, there is less money available to maintain the roads. He said that Visalia has 427 miles of road and 2300 acres of pavement that have a rating of low to good. Maintaining streets that are in good condition costs about twenty cents a square foot, but if the road reaches a certain level of deterioration it costs four to five dollars a square foot to repair, Peck said.
Visalia’s roads cost $8.2 million a year to maintain, but the city only has $2.6 million a year to do it. That translates into roads reaching a level of deterioration where they basically need to be rebuilt, said Peck. He said at the current pace, it will cost Visalia $28 million a year to move its roads from poor to good condition if the city does not increase revenue.
Peck said that if the sales tax measure does not pass that “the city will have to take less money and cover more roads.” That would mean that Visalia would only have enough money to repair the arterial and collector roads and ignore the rest. Over time that would lead to a full degradation of our roads he said.
Councilmember Greg Collins interjected after Peck’s presentation, stating “I’m just getting more depressed.”
Collins added that when Visalia constructs more roads the deeper our financial hole gets.
Good news came with the presentation about Visalia’s Fire Department. Visalia Fire Chief Doug McBee reported that, right now, the fire department has a healthy budget and that it does not foresee requiring increased revenues in the near future. That will change, though, as the population increases he said.
Because the parks and trails add to the quality of life, it was suggested that 5% of the increased tax revenue be spent in that department.
Jeannie Greenwood, head of the Visalia Parks and Recreation, said that there are over 40 parks and an extensive trail system that would receive less maintenance if the tax measure did not pass. Right now there is $10.3 million a year to maintain the trails and parks but the department needs $15.3 million.
What remains for the city council members to decide is where to prioritize the money. The current needs for the police, fire, roads and parks add up to $13.3 million, but the proposed sales tax increase will only be$ 10 million.
The next step is to conduct citizens’ outreach to educate Visalians about the sales tax ballot measure. Mayor Nelsen said the voters need to ask themselves, “is this a true need or a wish list?” He said the residents are going to see that this is a true need. The fact that 40% of the income from the tax increase will come from non-Visalia residents should also help in passing the measure.
The city council has until the end of July to make a final decision about putting the tax measure on the November ballot, and until August to solidify its spending plan and agree on the ballot measure language.