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Sales Tax Measure Proponents Hold 1st Town Hall

Sales Tax Measure Proponents Hold 1st Town Hall

A town hall meeting sponsored by Escondido Citizens for Safety—which formed about two weeks ago—was held Thursday, November 30 at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido to gauge the interests of residents in gathering signatures for a citizens initiative to put another sales tax measure on the ballot.

About a dozen people attended. Perhaps they form the seed of a movement that will flourish and grow. Or maybe they are the top ceiling of interest in addressing the city’s fiscal woes.

A year ago the City Council put a measure on the ballot that failed to pass by 400 votes, or about 1%. The new organization is backed by Escondido fire/police officers. They are willing to fund it, but don’t insist on “owning it,” explained Ryan Gardner, a consultant hired by the new committee.

They recognize that such a measure could only succeed if it has broad support across the city, and not just from police and fire interests.  “It would take wide support to get it across the finish line,” Gardner said.

No city council support

Gardner said that the meeting, and a follow up town hall scheduled for December 14, 7 p.m. in the same room, are intended to give the public an opportunity to discuss such an initiative, including what it should look like. He emphasized, “I do not work for the city,” and noted that no one on the city council supports the efforts of the newly formed committee.  “The city council has made it clear it won’t do it,” he said.

In fact, said Gardner, the council would have no say at all in the matter. If enough signatures were gathered to qualify, they would have no choice but to put it on the ballot.

If such a measure were to move forward and qualify for the November 2024 ballot, it would require supporters to gather at least 7,700 signatures, either themselves or by paying professionals. Only registered voters living in the city can sign. Proponents would have 180 days to gather the signatures. If they start around the first of the year, as they plan, they would have until around spring to complete the task.

This compares favorably with other efforts in other cities in the county that have succeeded in recent years, said Gardner.

2 kinds of taxes

Proponents could try to qualify one of two kinds of taxes: 1) a special tax earmarked for a particular use, but which would require a 2/3 supermajority to pass or 2) a general tax, where the money could be used for any public purpose, and which would require a simple majority of 50% plus one to pass.

Complicating this process are two possible measures whose supporters are attempting to qualify them for the statewide ballot in 2024. One: “Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act” would change the rules for how the state and local governments can impose taxes, fees, and other charges. The other: “Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act,” would raise the vote threshold from a simple majority to a two-thirds supermajority, but would exempt General Taxes.  However, if passed, special taxes by a citizen’s initiative would require the 2/3 supermajority and new taxes would have to have a sunset date.

A sunset date is something that those who want to fund the city through the next 20 years until it passes through its structural budget deficit have talked about doing. For about six years the city faces a $10 annual deficit, followed by 15 years of a $18.2 million average deficit, according to a recent Power Point presentation given to the City Council by City Manager Sean McGlynn. After that the deficit would begin to decline.

Note: that budget presentation can be found on the city website: www.escondido.org/budget-information

Competing for resources

During those 20 years, police, fire, the Arts Center, the library, various city services, parks, pothole repair, senior services and city facilities would all compete for a much smaller pie.

This structural deficit is being caused by rising California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) payments the city is responsible for. These payments are rising because—before the Great Recession of 2008-2009—the state pension fund invested heavily in the stock market. It took a big hit when the stock market plummeted and is taking decades to climb out of. 

The audience learned that the city doesn’t have the resources to fund at its current levels for more than a couple of years. The situation, according to one attendee “is just as dire this year as it was last year,” when Measure E failed.

Staff starting to leave

If the city doesn’t find other funding measures, it will begin dipping into its reserves. Many city employees have already started to leave Escondido to work where they can get higher pay. An example: only one city staffer is processing business permits. Which is causing delays of several months in some cases.

Several who attended expressed worries that since police and fire officers are funding the effort, all the money raised would be earmarked for public safety, to the detriment of other stakeholders.

Carol Rogers said, “It seems like what we are showing is heavily weighted toward police and fire. Is there a way to weigh it more equitably? How do we frame this so more people embrace it? We are talking about the quality of life in Escondido. It’s not going to resonate otherwise. It’s got to be warm and fuzzy.”

It was pointed out that public safety makes up 76% of the current budget: about $130 million annually.

Another audience member: “When you say community services people understand what you are talking about. Services where you have a library to go to, to escape the heat. They know you are talking about city pools being drained.”

Another woman asked, “Is it really true about the pensions causing the structural deficit.”

Another answered her, “The short answer is ‘yes.’”

Someone said, “If anyone saw that Power Point (budget presentation) they would be totally for it.”

Not a Republican or Democrat issue

Audience member Stef Holden said he had attended a Rotary Club meeting where the city manager brought the budget presentation. “It was very sobering to say the least,” he said. What the various funding options have in common, “is that they are all pretty dire.” Holden added, “It’s not a Republican or a Democratic issue, it’s an ‘I can read a balance sheet’ issue.”

A man agreed, “It can’t be a Republican or Democratic issue.”

Another man observed that the city needs to have economic development to grow its tax base. Noting that the city recently lost the Bronner soap company. “It’s not just a quality of life issue but quality of business,” he said.

Someone else observed that a “special tax,” that only addressed public safety, “would not be popular. A special tax would sink the initiative.”

Gardner said, “Nothing is off the table because we haven’t written the measure yet.”

Dan Sunquist said that, in his opinion, “When Measure E included the pension verbiage, that sank the measure. Because it’s such a complicated issue. The average consumer will see ‘pension’ and say, ‘I don’t have a pension, why would I vote for this?’ ”

That verbiage, that the money would partially be used to pay for city pensions, last year was included in the title summary at the insistence of one council member to gain his support for putting it on the ballot.

A member of the audience commented, “Once the public hears this information, that changes everything.”

Jeff Epp, former city manager, said the group should not “reinvent the wheel” by coming up with new surveys and studies of what the public might support. The city did two such surveys several years ago that the new group can draw on, he said.

A woman said one reason Measure E failed was “support was lukewarm. There wasn’t a lot of support. It was actually kind of tepid.”

A different woman emphasized the “quality of life,” issue. “I don’t think public safety will be enough. But quality of life will,” she said.

A man added, “I want to live in a city that has flourishing parks, where you can play ball. I would be for a full one cent tax increase.”

Gardner said the committee could look at various tax increases, with 1.5 cent probably being the highest. “Several variables will need to be considered. Should there be a sunset? How much should it be? What would fix the problem and what makes the most sense?”

Gardner summed up, “I have a sense that people are leaning toward a general tax.” He reiterated that the public safety backers of the initiative, are paying for the effort, “but they don’t own it.”

George Weir said he thought a citizens oversight committee should be included.

Gardner said that such a committee would report on how the money raised is being spent, but the city council would still have the ultimate say. “Normally you don’t have an oversight committee for a general tax,” he said.

Another man said, “The public likes oversight. They like to know how their money is being spent.”

Gardner reemphasized that in a citizens initiative, the city council has no role. “The city council is entirely removed from, for instance, writing the title summary. The committee will likely write it.”

Sign-up sheets were available on tables outside the auditorium for interested persons to sign up. “We’re in the exploratory phase. There is no measure yet.” The next town hall meeting will be December 14, 7 p.m. at the CCAE conference room.

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