The Petaluma City Council struggled with a difficult financial dilemma Monday: Should it hire a much-needed police officer or an equally needed police dispatcher with its scarce funds?
The decision — pushed off until city staff can better analyze funding sources — reflects the fact that Petaluma needs more revenue.
As roads deteriorate, emergency vehicles break down, the police department considers removing one officer from patrol, maintenance is deferred and pension and healthcare costs rise, city staff has urged the City Council to explore a tax measure for the November 2014 ballot. Now, facing a $2.3 million budget deficit by 2016, the council agreed Monday to begin polling voters about a possible tax increase.
“We have a ton of unmet needs,” said City Manager John Brown, who added that the city doesn't want to be in the position it's in now with police staffing, stuck deciding between one need and another need. “These are all pipers that must be paid. We really don't have the funding to cover our costs and a tax of some kind appears to be the answer to this problem.”
Mayor David Glass went even further: “We don't have to go bankrupt as a city, but we will if we don't make some changes.”
Putting a tax measure on the ballot is not cheap. Brown estimates that public polling alone can run anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000. The total cost of running a tax increase campaign, including polling, education, outreach and advocacy could be as much as $200,000, he said. And there's no guarantee that the measure will pass.
Because of these high stakes, Councilmember Chris Albertson and Mayor David Glass recently conducted some hands-on research, traveling to the city of Fairfield, which, in 2012, passed a 5-year, 1 percent specialized sales tax increase. It's expected to generate an impressive $13 million annually.
“In Fairfield, they surveyed their community on the three things people most wanted tax increase dollars spent on,” said Albertson. “Then, they crafted a specialized tax to cover those three things — police, fire and streets — and it passed with 68 percent of the votes.”