City residents will decide sales tax increase question in June 7 election

The Susanville City Council unanimously approved Resolution 22-5969 and Resolution 22-5970 Wednesday, Feb. 16 asking the residents of Susanville to approve or reject a 1-percent sales tax increase. The first resolution adds the question to the June 7, ballot, and the second resolution asks city residents to weigh in on the uses of additional sales tax revenue, if approved.

If city voters approve the increase through Measure Q, the council will then draft an ordinance to impose and execute the tax increase. Measure Q requires only a majority vote to pass.

“I want to know what the people in this community want,” said Mayor Mendy Schuster. “If we put it on the ballot and let the people vote, then we’ll know.”

City voters defeated a sales tax increase proposal — Measure J — in 2018. Measure J collected 1,734 yes votes (28.5 1 percent) and 4,348 no votes (71.49 percent), according to Ballotpedia.

According to the staff report, the city is “taking every proactive effort to save money and maintain the level of service our community has come to expect, including cutting its budget by reducing service positions, including cuts to public safety and pursuing all available grant funding. Members of the community consider the provision of fire and police services a high priority, in addition to improving streets and supporting business development and jobs creation. Despite significant cost saving measures the City Council has employed in recent years to address the ongoing budget crisis, including the consolidation of job duties, significant reductions in staffing levels, sales of assets and deferment of equipment purchases, current revenue forecasts indicate that the city’s General Fund will struggle to maintain basic service levels in future fiscal years … This tax will allow the city to maintain existing vital public safety services and continue the provision of public safety services at the level our community is accustomed.”

According to the staff report, “If Measure Q passes, the city of Susanville will enact an ordinance that imposes a 1-percent tax on sales and use transactions within the city of Susanville. The purpose of the tax is to raise enough money annually to continue to provide the citizens of Susanville with essential public safety services such as police and fire among others. The purpose of Measure Q is to advise the City Council that the funds received from Measure Q should primarily be used to maintain and enhance existing public safety services (police and fire), and provide funding to support street infrastructure improvements, and provide funding to support economic development efforts designed to increase businesses, jobs, and visitors to Susanville.”

On the ballot, city voters will answer a yes or no question — “Shall city of Susanville Measure Q establishing a one-cent sales tax be adopted, providing $1.75 million annually for city services until ended by voters and requiring a citizen oversight committee?”

City voters will then be asked a second yes or no question — “If Measure Q passes, should the revenues be used to balance the budget to maintain and enhance existing public safety services (police and fire), and provide funding to support street infrastructure improvements and provide funding to support economic development efforts designed to increase businesses, jobs and visitors to Susanville?”

City officials estimate about 80 percent of the city’s annual budget goes to public safety costs.

Councilmember Thomas Herrera expressed concerns about the city’s reputation for accountability with the residents, and he said it was important the city spend the money for its intended purposes. He said if the council says the increased sale tax revenue will go to the police, then the council needs to keep its word and ensure the money goes to the police.

Herrera also noted residents may not realize how much of the local sales tax money goes to the state.

“I think if we’re going to do this, it has to be a hand-in-hand thing with the people of Susanville so they understand that Sacramento takes 99 percent of our (sales tax) money,” Herrera said.  “They leave us with 1 percent to manage our entire city.”

Councilmember Kevin Stafford also expressed accountability with the public concerns and said the city should continue to find ways to reduce its expenditures.

“I don’t really have a problem with the tax, but I think the city needs to put a (budget) reduction plan together and put it on the table,” Stafford said. “We’re just throwing a tax measure out and living the way we live … We really need to get that out and vote on it (the budget reduction plan) again.”

Councilmember Quincy McCourt also expressed accountability concerns and said it was important the city educate public about how the tax increase actually works.

During public comment, Lassen County District 2 Supervisor Gary Bridges said the council should stress to the public the majority of the money collected would come from those who live outside the city and spend money here, but former supervisor David Teeter disagreed, saying a 1-percent increase in the cost to his customers means a 1-percent increase in the amount of work he will have to put in.

“There’s no such thing as free money,” Teeter said.

Herrera and McCourt wanted to make sure there was a way to stop collecting the increased sales tax if it was no longer wanted or needed, but the three other councilmembers pointed out that concern had already been addressed in the resolution.

According to the resolution, “The authority to levy the tax imposed by this ordinance shall continue until this ordinance is repealed by a majority vote of the voters of the city, or until it is repealed or suspended or by a majority vote of the City Council. In the event the City Council repeals or suspends the tax, it may resume collection without voter approval as long as the transactions tax rate and use tax rate are not higher than the rates set forth in Sections 5 and 7, respectively.”