Visalia City Council will have its last meeting August 1 concerning the tax ballot measure. Whereas a tax measure will be on the ballot, the council still needs to discuss the language and the content of the resolution or background text.
The city council began discussing in earnest putting a measure on the November ballot raising sales tax by a half cent two years ago. Because sales tax revenue has stagnated, and may actually go down, the city needed to find a new source of revenue to maintain essential services. The proposed language of the measure is as follows:
“To maintain/improve essential city services including police, fire/9-1-1 emergency/ medical aide response, gang prevention programs and neighborhood police patrols; maintain streets; reduce criminal street activity; attract/retain businesses/jobs; address homelessness; maintain youth/senior programs, and other services, shall the City of Visalia increase the sales tax by ½- cent, providing approximately $10,800,000 annually, until voters decide to end it; requiring annual audits, citizen’s oversight and all funds used locally.”
The city council has held two public hearings, July 11 and July 18, to get feedback from the public and refine the resolution. The city council members outlined a clear spending plan at the first public hearing, and at the second discussed accountability in detail.
The council decided that the lion’s share of the revenue from the sales tax will be spent on police, fire protection, and roads. About five percent will be used for parks and recreation. The council based its decision on community feedback and a recent survey showing that the majority of Visalians’ biggest priority is public safety.
Because the council is putting forward a general purpose measure, the spending plan can change through the years. Visalia Mayor Steve Nelsen said that 70% of the general funds go to public safety and that is not going to change. “The residents wouldn’t allow it to be spent on parks or other services,” he said.
The accountability safeguards were many on which the council agreed. “The more the merrier,” several members said. The highlights were appointing an oversight board consisting of 11 members. The council also agreed to require itself to hold two public hearings before the spending plan is changed, and hiring an independent auditor to account for the money coming in and out.
The city council also discussed putting in a hard sunset so the sales tax would have to be reapproved by the voters every 6 or 8 years. Two local surveys conducted by the city indicate that voters want the tax to continue until ended by the voters. Because this measure will be funding staff positions, the city staff recommended that the reauthorization process be kept at the council level, minimizing the potential for layoffs and reducing the job uncertainty that might discourage employees from staying at their job.
While Council member Warren Gubler wanted a hard sunset clause put into the resolution, and to be voted by the residents, Council members Amy Shuklian, Mayor Nelsen, Bob Link and Greg Collins voted that four-fifths of the council would have to vote to end the sales tax. Nelsen added that the city will continue to grow and will need funding to maintain public safety services. This is the appropriate vehicle to do that, he said.
During the second public hearing council member Greg Collins gave a convincing presentation of why some of the money should go for quality of life issues. He pointed out that investing in our youth pays dividends down the road and lessens the need for more police. “You can’t fix all social problems by adding police.”
He was pushing for five percent of the revenues to be dedicated towards youth services or recreation, but walked away with a consensus from all members of two percent.
During both public hearings no one spoke against the half cent increase in the sales tax. The two main speakers from the public, Harold Mayers from the Ballot Measure Advisory Committee, and Chris Telfer, from Tulare County Tax Payers Association, had a problem with the fact that the spending plan would not be set in stone. Measure T and Measure R needed a two-thirds vote to pass, and by law all the money has to be earmarked. For a General Purpose measure the money cannot be dedicated but the allocation is at the discretion of the sitting city council.
Telfer agreed that public safety was the best use of the new revenue but was uneasy about the fact it was not a concrete spending plan. Meyers says that a 50% plus one vote is not accountable to anything, and really wanted the plan set in stone. He pushed the council to vote for a two-thirds measure which would ensure that future councils could not change the plan.
Meyers pointed out that in a recent survey of Visalia residents 71% said that they would vote for an increase in sales tax. But the respondents were not informed that “the council could spend it just how they want,” Meyers said. He added that organized opposition to the measure will use that point to defeat it. He felt that a 50% plus one measure would be a bigger gamble than a measure that need two-thirds of the voters if that meant the spending plan was set in stone.
Nelsen said the best indicator of the council’s future behavior will is to look how it behaved in the past. “All we can do is look at history.” Meyer’s counterpoint was that in November Visalia residents will be looking at several new council members, and all members will be representing their districts, not the city at-large.
Gubler agreed with Meyers about making this a two-thirds ballot measure. The other four voted to keep it a 50% plus one measure. Council Member Bob Link said that he has been down that road once before trying to get two -thirds of the votes and does not want to do it again. He reminded the council that Measure T was behind and did not pull a win until the absentee votes were counted.
The city council has until August 1st to make their decision.