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Santa Rosa voters will decide this fall whether to tax their cellphones, but they won't get to consider changes to a controversial tax measure that funds public safety services in the city.

The City Council voted 5-2 to put a measure on the fall ballot that would "modernize" its tax on utilities and extend it to cover cellphone users.

But the vote came only after a lengthy and emotional debate about whether the city should be expanding one tax before it has tackled needed changes to another.

"What I'm concerned about is we're talking about putting in an IV before stopping the bleeding," Councilwoman Julie Combs said.

The measure is expected to raise an additional $1.6 million and prevent further erosion in revenues from lawsuits that could block the city from collecting the tax and society's technological shift from landlines, which are currently taxed, to cellphones, which are not.

It would lower the 5 percent rate on all utilities to 4.25 percent, but raise more money by generating $2.7 million in new revenue from cellphones. Several City Council members were convinced that the utility tax could disappear soon.

"The (utility users tax) is an immediate threat to our financial stability," Mayor Scott Bartley said.

But critics of the move felt it was more important for voters to have the chance to fix what they say are problems with Measure O, the 2004 quarter-cent sales tax measure to enhance public safety and gang-prevention services. The tax is controversial because it has a baseline funding level that adjusts upward annually by the consumer price index.

Councilmembers Gary Wysocky and Combs voted against expanding the utility tax until the public safety tax measure is changed.

Combs said she was extremely frustrated to hear the explanation that there wasn't enough time to educate the public to ensure the ballot measure succeeded. She said she heard the same explanation two years ago.

"That's very disturbing to me," Combs said.

She noted that public safety's percentage of the city budget has risen from 52 percent in 2001 to 63 percent today. She said continuing the pattern was "intolerable."

Several members of the public agreed.

Willard Richards said he didn't understand why the committee hadn't come up with a recommendation for solving such a pressing financial issue facing the city.

In two years the current city manager will have retired, two council members will have stepped down, and two others who are running for higher office may also be gone.

"Let's not kick the Measure O problem down the road to some other city manager and some other City Council," Richards said.

City resident Linda Proulx said Measure O is having the effect of making public safety a larger and larger percentage of the city budget to the detriment of other departments like parks.

"Why would we wait two more years to correct something that isn't working?" she said.

Wysocky argued that the voters had passed Measure P in 2010 as a temporary tax measure to help the city out of the financial bind caused by the recession, and the city hadn't lived up to its end of the bargain.

"We have done nothing of substance since Measure P was passed to get our house in order," Wysocky said.

Bartley said that the Long-Term Financial Policy Subcommittee had taken a close look at putting Measure O before the voters but concluded it was too complicated and unlikely to succeed. "We spent a year struggling with this," he said.

The committee suggested focusing on the utility tax now, and going back and taking a closer look at combining Measure O and Measure P. There is no way to pull together such a complicated measure by November and hope it will succeed, Ours said.

"If we want success, we have to go to the public with a plan that makes sense, and we can't do that," Ours said.

The vote on the cellphone measure was not the final decision on the matter. The council merely instructed city staff to begin the work necessary to put such a measure on the ballot. That involves drafting the ordinance and giving the city attorney time to prepare the ballot arguments and draft an impartial analysis.

City Manager Kathy Millison said she expected the issue to come back to the council in June.

The council's vote included a requirement that the subcommittee come back by Sept. 1 with additional information and analysis of the idea to merge and extend Measure O and Measure P.