The Visalia City Council at its August 1 meeting gave final approval to put a half-cent sales tax measure on the November ballot. The vote was 5-0. The increased revenue will be earmarked for public safety and a small percent will go to youth services and parks. Because it is a General Revenue Measure, the spending plan can change through the years but only after a lengthy and public process. The measure needs to pass by a simple majority.
The city council has been researching the possibility of such a ballot measure for two years because sales tax revenue has stagnated, and may actually go down. The goal of the sales tax is to maintain the current level of city services that have actually increased in cost.
Eric Frost, Deputy City Manager, gave the final presentation and reviewed what the council had already agreed upon in principal. The sales tax would have to be reviewed by the council every eight years. To suspend the sales tax the city council would need a four fifths vote. Voters could also suspend the sales tax through a referendum.
The council also agreed on many strict accountability measures. The increase in revenue cannot be used to pay off the city’s debt and must undergo annual independent audits. A specific spending plan must be in place and recertified every year by an oversight board, two public hearings and a vote by the city council. The oversight board will consist of 11 members who are involved in the community.
Fewer than usual people spoke during the comment period because the city council had already addressed citizens’ concerns during previous public hearings. Harold Meyers, a member of the Ballot Measure Advisory Committee, wanted the voter pamphlet to be clear that this measure does not have the same restrictions as Measure T. That measure is a public safety fund whose spending plan cannot be changed. The measure facing voters in November can change with future city councils.
Jerrold Jensen, also on the committee, thought that backlash from Kaweah Delta’s failed Measure H would imperil this measure but still felt it would pass. “Visalia is still a bargain,” he said. “Dinuba, Porterville and Tulare have a six or seven percent utility tax on top of a high sales tax.” Jensen did prefer the flexibility that a 50% plus one ballot measure gives to future council members.
Councilmember Bob Link gave an example of exactly why the council needs flexibility in its spending plan. He pointed out that ten years ago, when Measure T passed, body cameras for police were relatively new. Now they are almost mandatory equipment for police but because of the restrictions Measure T is not allowed to pay for them.
Councilmember Greg Collins said that the yearly public surveys have proven why the council needs flexibility. Ten years ago the priority of the residents of Visalia was gangs and growth. Now citizens’ priorities are homeless, safety and parks. Collins said that he has been supportive from day one of the sales tax measure.
That sentiment was echoed by Councilmember Amy Shuklian, who said she will be voting yes in November and is confident that the money will be spent wisely. Councilmember Warren Gubler said in general he was against any new taxes but voted yes to the resolution to let the citizens decide.
Mayor Steve Nelsen said he was not happy about new taxes either, but if we had to have one, he prefers a tax everyone has to pay. In addition, 40% of the revenue will come from outsiders spending money in Visalia. Nelsen said that Visalia can’t tighten their belt any further as the city is understaffed and is behind in road repair. He added that Sacramento continues to impose new programs on cities without providing the funding.
“Currently the things you receive now you will not receive in the future, so I am hopeful that the citizens pass this,” said Nelsen.