City discusses public safety tax

Discussions around putting a sales tax measure onto the 2020 ballot are already being hammered out by the city of Susanville. Discussions on the differences between the 2018 joint city and county sales tax measure and the one currently being discussed seem to vary.

At the request of city councilmember Brian Moore, the Susanville City Council held discussions on the addition of a sales tax measure at its special meeting June 13. Looming above those discussions was the failure of the past measure.

At the June 13 meeting, the staff approached the sales tax discussion by presenting the idea of special “public safety” tax — which needs a supermajority or two-thirds of the vote to pass. The 2018 ballot measure required only a simple majority to pass.

The point was clear during the meeting: the special tax would be needed to ensure the funds went directly to public safety and not the general fund. In fact, suggestions of a specifically designated public safety fund gained near unanimity from the council, staff and those residents in attendance.

City Administrator Mike Wilson told the council that he received positive feedback from those within the Susanville Police Officer Association as being the “backbone” of the efforts to get the measure passed.

“Doing some door-to-door activity out there as an association as well as getting some backing community members who would be out there to support them. They’ve got a lot of work in front of them … and unfortunately it gives them less time,” said Wilson. “It’s going to be February … its going to be the most difficult time to do that.”

Wilson also mentioned that he personally wished he had had a few years to build trust, rapport and relationships with the community first, before putting the measure on the ballot.

Susanville Police Chief Kevin Jones recounted his experience in the last cycle of elections, saying, “The one thing that was clear … that we want to have a public safety tax.” Jones said and that he was optimistic on the chances of its passage, but that “if the city chooses to do this … they need to create a public safety fund.”

Mayor pro tem Joseph Franco told those in attendance that even if the council were to support the measure, the funds would not be enough to curb the woes.

“It’s still not going to fix the budget,” said Franco. “I do believe that the public is going to be watching very closely and make sure that we don’t decrease the amount of money that we spend in public safety.”

Franco added that the tax would only prepare them for the increase in cost of public safety, but it wouldn’t fix the current budget problems it currently has.

Susanville public works director Dan Newton spoke up and said, “I think it might be important to recognize also that this year is a struggle but that the real CalPers hit hasn’t happened yet.”

The details that caused further discussion centered on the exact percentage of the tax.

Administrator Wilson opted to shoot for a lower percentage.

He came to the conclusion “based on the fact that we’re trying to an economic development increase and compete with other entities around us that have higher sales tax. We could bring it up a quarter of a percent and still be able to draw the Reno, Nevada … market over us if we can develop the stores and the retail economy here.”

Wilson anticipated an increase of retail spending within the Susanville area if the percentage of tax was kept lower.

Those in attendance verbally spoke out in opposition of the lower percent. Resident Kurt Bonham was one of those who spoke in opposition to the lower percentage. Bonham said, “You’ve got to go with a 1-percent increase, … a full 1-percent — $1.7 million would actually be a relief to the council and both departments because they’re not going to have be hunting down every grant for every little single thing that’s out there. They can spend their time on doing the important issues of why they’re hired.”

Bonham also said that the city council would “have to” create a public safety fund so that the departments are self-sufficient.