Sales tax may ease city’s economic crisis

The Susanville City Council held a public hearing pertaining to its 1-percent special sales tax measure for public safety, due to be put on the March 2020 ballot.

The Oct. 2 hearing produced community and department demands for transparency, gave rise to tears of worry and fear from the fire chief and an insistence upon tangible results for the people of Susanville.

The current sales tax 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, whereas 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 dire economic crisis Susanville faces in these next three years is finally hitting an emotional breaking point for many working for the city.

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With the increase of CalPERS unfunded liabilities on the back of the city budget, some on the council (and even within the city’s own staff) are calling for, and planning for, cuts and layoffs throughout the city.

These cuts and layoffs could mean the difference between keeping qualified people who protect residents from fire and danger and the possibility of even longer wait times for emergency services due to even further constraints to the city’s budget, not to mention the constraints to the budgets of those families whose wages, healthcare or future retirement savings could be lost or reduced due to the circumstances.

City Administrator Mike Wilson opened the discussions at the Oct. 2 meeting where he shared the draft of the ordinance with the council.

“Our city staff meetings and our chiefs of our departments have provided input and direction on the way they desire to see language put into this ordinance,” said Wilson. “We’ve had several discussions about when the final draft must be provided for a final public hearing,” which Wilson described as coming shortly.

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Staff and council discussions

Before the public hearing, staff and council held discussions on the development of the ordinance’s language. Both Police Chief Kevin Jones and Susanville Fire District Chief James Moore provided staff with additional language specific to their corresponding departments.

Both Jones and Moore shared requests pertaining to the public’s desire for utmost transparency, including being very clear as to where the funds would go.

The chiefs also outlined their specific needs including additional staff, vehicles and augmentation of wages.

Moore outlined the overall feedback and told the council, “From the input we’ve received from the public, and from what we understand from the last measures that were unsuccessful, we want transparency,” and that “the public really wants to know that this ask will be applied to putting some thought into, and so my request with respect to that, I crafted them to hopefully be very clear … exactly where this money if going and how we plan to use it.”

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Moore detailed the five specific requests to be memorialized in the language of the document from the city’s fire department. Those requests included a cost share split at 40 percent for the fire department and 60 percent toward the police department of the potential $1.8 million in potential revenue.

This means a potential of $720,000 for fire and $1.08 million for police.

Jones also agreed with the split, because with the ordinance, each department will take on its portion of unfunded liabilities, in addition to the costs of their requests, a substantial increase.

The second request was to the intention to hire one full-time employee for code enforcement for compliance. The third includes having seasonal firefighters from July to November, with the possibility of going full-time if needed.

This included additional fire department staff increases as necessary for the delivery of current and/or expected services for fire and emergency services response.

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Moore also said the request would “Provide for employee safety and maintain our ISO rating.”

The third request was for the fire department to have a dedicated and annually approved budget based on the fiscal year, including the increase of revenue from the potential sales tax increase.

The fourth request was to purchase vehicles and equipment as necessary to keep up with requirements, laws, regulations and standards or the current or expected level of services.

The final request from the fire department involved the augmentation of base wages, and increase in fringe benefits and any increase in the cost of retirement, excluding any overtime compensation for the department.

Moore continued, “Our unit is in the street. In the living rooms. The coffee shop. Wherever they may be, trying to garner support so they have some answers for these questions they we’re getting asked,” including “What you plan to do? How does this plan to work? What are we going to get for our money? I had these (questions) in the back of my mind as I crafted these five items, as well as provide a future for our current employees.”

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Moore went silent for close to a minute as his eyes welled with tears.

He spoke through and said, “You all know I love this city. I don’t want to see cuts. We’re doing what we can. We’re doing the best we can. We’re at capacity. Our folks — every employee of this city — is at capacity. We need this to survive … I want this to be solid.”

Those in the audience applauded Moore and those on the city council also agreed with him.

Jones also shared his department’s requests, detailing limited changes to the ordinance’s language.

Jones said, “Essentially, the money will be used for additional employees throughout the police department in the protection of the community … and be amended to provide equipment and clothing … that enhance the ability to perform our duties including the aid and the maintenance of the facility. The other language is … to basically approve an annual approved budget based on the ‘19-’20 budget, including the revenue of the public safety tax.”

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Councilmember Joseph Franco called for the need for residents to see real tangible results and improvements in order to garner resident support, putting a heavy burden on the departments to deliver. Franco requested building into the ordinance a sort of mechanism where constant analysis from the public would be built into the measure, to keep the money going where the public wanted.

Councilmember Mendy Schuster mentioned the ordinance’s designation of a citizens oversight committee, and wondered if Franco’s request could be formulated under that purview.

Councilmember Brian Wilson suggested writing language promoting representation from members of the public on the citizen’s oversight committee. Wilson also suggested advertising the open committee positions before the passage of the ordinance, to have it in place to begin.

City Finance Manager Deborah Savage mentioned that even if the ordinance passes in the spring, the city wouldn’t see the funds until possibly the first quarter of fiscal year 2021.

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Public input

After discussions from the fire and police departments, as well as from the councilmembers themselves, the public hearing portion of the meeting opened and a few passionate residents took to the podium.

Jerry Aske, the first of those from the public who spoke to the council, encouraged the council to look for any way possible to bring in revenue. He also reminded the council of his prior assertion that the council should hold open forums where the city shares the ordinance in its entirety with residents.

Aske also shared his interest in a transient occupancy tax, which is already in place and collected by most motels within the city’s limits, excluding the Diamond Mountain Casino.

Councilmember Wilson briefly explained that the city in fact did collect the tax at 10 percent.

Aske encouraged the protection of the ISO insurance rating by increasing the fire department’s funding, since if there is no department, it would increase costs of resident’s insurance premiums.

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Leon Myers, local engineer for the city of Susanville’s Fire Department, came to speak to the council as a member of the Operating Engineers Local 3 union, which represents the city’s firefighters and is in support of the measure.

Myers explained his hesitation toward taxes but also said, “I’m also realistic, and I understand that sometimes they’re necessary. Sometimes they are very helpful and sometimes they can actually go to do good things.”

Myers saw the current proposal as fitting into his idea of what he thought fit the description of necessary and helpful. He saw the tax as the way to allow him and those in the department to continue to do their jobs. He urged the public to look into the measure and address their questions and concerns.

Another resident, Thomas Wason, shared his interest in seeing the citizens oversight committee filled with members of the public. He also shared his experience staying in Susanville as a kid, where he could spend time collecting crawdads. He shared that he now would not eat anything from the river, explaining the rivers as filled with lithium batteries, sanitary napkins and other materials.

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Another resident and police officer, Fred Folk, shared that transparency was his biggest concern and that running on bare-bones would only work for so long, and that the department needs support.

The final resident, Kenny Gullion, shared he is in favor of giving law enforcement more funds to work with, but expressed hesitation at not allowing the ordinance to be sunsetted, instead of the current trajectory.

Gullion asked the council, “While you are all very trustworthy people … what happens when you’re gone?”

Gullion shared his concern around the issue of a future council taking the department’s general fund’s money away because of the additional revenue.

Councilmember Wilson told Gullion his comments were good ones and were being expressed by other residents, but disagreed with the issue of sunsetting the tax, noting the always increasing costs of things such as retirement. Also that the budget today is smaller than it was 10 years ago, due to the changes in consumer spending.

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Gullion then asked if the city has explored every area to “cut fat.” Councilmember Wilson responded that there was indeed no fat to cut.

Savage, in reference to councilmember Wilson’s notion of cutting fat, mentioned that in 2002 the city had 83 fulltime employees. It currently has only 63.