City approves tax measure for March ballot

It’s official: There will be a tax measure on next March’s ballot for residents of the city of Susanville to vote for or against.

The final language was decided between the Oct. 16 and Oct. 21 city council meetings where councilmembers, city staff, both the chiefs of the police and fire departments and many members of the public sorted out a magnitude of details for more than a combined three hours.

The measure put onto the ballot, if successful, will be a transaction and use tax of 1 percent to be used for public safety services and to be administered by the California Tax and Fee Administration, subject to a two-thirds majority of the electors voting on the tax measure.

The current percentage of sales tax currently collected within the city of Susanville is at 7.25 percent. If the measure passes, those purchasing goods within the city will pay 8.25 percent sales tax. For comparison, the cities of Placerville, Sacramento, Eureka and Grass Valley are all at 8.25 percent, the city of Reno collects 8.26 percent, San Jose collects 9.25 percent and the city of Los Angeles, 9.5 percent.

The tax measure was crafted to recognize public safety services, specifically the city’s police and fire departments. Regarding both departments, the tax will cover augmentation of base wages, incentives or stipends pursuant to any bargaining unit agreements, any costs of fringe benefits and any costs of retirement.

According to staff’s estimated calculations, there is a potential for around $1.8 million added revenues for police and fire. The split of the potential funds will give 60 percent to the police department and 40 percent to the fire department.

The police department’s goal is to hire a minimum of five patrol officers in addition to the current employee list. This will happen as funding becomes available and the budget allows. However, the staff noted that the funds for these positions could be as far as six to seven years away.

The costs will also cover providing, maintaining and improving equipment and vehicles for both departments, as well as aiding in maintenance and improvement of their facilities.

The tax will cover any costs from CalPERS unfunded liability and continued increased costs of CalPERS attributed to the departments, including unfunded liability costs for retirees. It also includes any and all costs and expenses associated with the departments’ budgets.

For the city’s fire department the tax would cover the goal of hiring an additional code enforcement officer, three seasonal firefighters for fire season July 1 to Nov. 1. The three part-time positions may be converted to full-time positions as delivery of fire and EMS services warrant.

The fire department also has a goal of funding any additional staffing increases necessary to maintain the current or expected level of services. The department is also aiming to provide for employees’ safety and to maintain the current ISO rating.

Public safety services as defined in the proposed ordinance include code enforcement costs for code enforcement services administered by both departments. It also includes dispatch costs for dispatch services used by both departments, with each department paying its own costs for code and dispatch services.

Both of the city’s chiefs made calls for transparency within the ordinance’s language, and both departments will develop annually approved and dedicated department budgets. Of course, as with all of the city’s budgets, it will still need the approval of the city council year after year.

Both the police and fire departments’ budgets for the first year after this tax measure is passed are based on the approved budget for the 2019-2020 fiscal year.

There were disagreements on just how specific or not the language should be, especially when it came to what would be gained from each department with regards to the tax allocation. The city attorney called for more open-endedness while several city councilmembers and the chiefs called for more specifics.

Because of the complexity of the ordinance, the past failure of the 2018 joint city-county tax measure, and calls from the public to understand where the money will be spent, Jones mentioned to the council at its Oct. 16 meeting, “I truly believe we need to have some kind of financial presentation for the community because people don’t understand it.”

One of the specifics discussed centered around confusion over retirement pay written into the ordinance that wasn’t necessary to add into the final language.

While those in the CalPERS system do not have overtime pay figured into retirement, Jones and city finance manager Debbie Savage pointed out overtime compensation is not counted for with CalPERS overall retirement.

Councilmember Mendy Schuster provided staff with a recommendation to assure the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee — appointed by the city council — would review all of the expenditures generated by the tax imposed by the ordinance.