City council moves safety tax measure forward

It looks like the city of Susanville might just take another crack putting a sales tax measure on the ballot March 2020. But this time, it’s both more urgent, complex, entirely designated to public safety and the council wants it focused on transparency.

The plan, at the direction of the council, is to put on the ballot a 1 percent sales and use tax, designated to public safety, and not the general fund. The tax would come with no sunset or expiration dates.

However, in order to approve a tax measure with revenue legally dedicated to a specific purpose — also known as a special tax — California state law requires a two-thirds supermajority vote of approval.

The council’s decision is also a nod to the Susanville Police Officers Association, which has requested the council bring up the matter for the March 2020 ballot multiple times.

The subject was discussed at the city council’s Aug. 21 meeting, where city administrator Mike Wilson opened the discussion and asked the council for direction.

Wilson detailed the dire circumstances to the council, “We know that without a public safety tax and without any further options that come forward through economic development … we are in a situation where we’re not going to have enough money to continue to fund the city — public safety specifically — in the future and in the next few years.”

Councilmembers confirmed their decision to move forward with crafting the measure, citing community feedback. Councilmembers detailed many concerns on the need to make an effort to curb a rise in local crime.

This means more police officers and firefighters — which means more money.

City staff shared their recommended with the council, and offered them to consider several options:

The options offered were to either make no change to the sales tax, put a measure on the March 2020 ballot for a general sales tax increase or to put the measure on the ballot for a special tax with the revenue going to public safety.

Staff also offered the choices of either having sunset dates on the sales tax increase on five, 10 or some other number of years, as well as not having sunsets.

Although there is no way to know for sure how much revenue could be generated from the sales tax increase, the city staff drafted projections.

With a quarter percent increase, an additional $450,000 could be generated. A half percent increase could bring possibly generate $900,000. A three-quarter a percent increase to the sales tax could generate $1.35 million and a full percent increase (which is where the council seems headed) would mean a possible $1.8 million increase in funds to public safety.

At first, mayor pro tem Joseph Franco said a three-quarter percent increase should be sufficient, with mayor Kevin Stafford agreeing.

Councilmember Brian Wilson responded by breaking down what was needed and what circumstances lie ahead, but also the necessity to remain and draft the measure around transparency.

Wilson also brought attention to the increase of the city’s share of unfunded liabilities from CalPers as well as the needs of additional members, and wage raises, of those in public safety.

Councilmember Mendy Schuster shared her preference for the sales tax going totally toward public safety with no sunsets. Stafford and others agreed with Schuster.

Franco noted that with a special tax comes a higher threshold.

Administrator Wilson told the council the staff will draft the ordinance to show where the money will be spent. Wilson shared many community concerns centered on having the measure detail a “clearly identified use” for the money.

Administrator Wilson said the ordinance would be drafted in such a way as to have the “complete instructions and directions on how that money will be spent,” and that with the ordinance will come a designated public safety account.

Based on the current numbers, the city’s finance manager Debbie Savage told the council, at this point in time, they were looking at an annual increase of around $300,000 to $400,000 per year for the city’s share of CalPers unfunded liabilities.

Savage explained the rise in the city’s share of the costs would increase through and peak at 2025, totalling $1.3 million from the general fund alone.

“We have people … coming up and telling us how much they want more protection for our citizens,” said Schuster, “and it gets down to the point where you need to put it on the ballot and let the citizens decide,” she continued and posed the question, “Do you want to pay more and have that? Because that’s what we have to do in order to get that.”

Councilmember Brian Moore suggested staff research other cities or areas that have instituted successful public safety tax increases.

On June 2018, Measure J was on the ballot for a .57 percent general transactions and use tax, but failed.

With the imminent budget shortfalls in all areas of the city including public safety, many community members told those at the city they would have supported Measure J had it been a special tax, rather than a general fund deposit from a simple majority.

California has a state-mandated minimum sales tax of 7.25 percent, with counties, municipalities and districts allowed to increase up to a total of 10.25 percent.

Revenues from the mandatory 7.25 percent sales tax are allocated in the following way: 4.47 percent goes to the state of California’s general fund; .25 percent goes into California’s general fund, and half a percent goes into the state’s Local Public Safety Fund for Criminal Justice Services.

Another half a percent goes into the state’s Local Revenue Fund for Health and Social Services and 1.0625 percent goes into the state’s Local Revenue Fund 2011 with sub accounts that include Trial Court Security Account, the Local Community Corrections Account, the Local Law Enforcement Services Account, the Juvenile Justice Account, the Health Services Account the Reserve Account and the Undistributed Account.

One and a quarter percent goes toward local revenue, another percent goes toward local city and county operating funds and the last quarter of a percent goes toward local county transportation funds.