Rohnert Park has reduced city spending by almost 15 percent since 2006. The City Council budgeted $24.5 million for the current fiscal year. That's the smallest sum since 2003-04.
Even so, city officials expect a $1.4 million deficit for 2013-14, with projections showing ongoing deficits for years to come, potentially threatening the city's solvency.
"Looking at these numbers," Councilman Amy Ahanotu said during a budget hearing in June, "I hope we can come up with something that can help us avoid bankruptcy."
That something is a sales tax.
In 2010, Rohnert Park voters approved a half-cent sales tax to maintain city services during the worst economic downtown since the Great Depression. The tax generates about $3.2 million a year, but it's scheduled to expire in 2015. The council placed Measure A on the Nov. 5 ballot to rescind the expiration date.
After a decade of deficit spending, City Manager Gabe Gonzalez said, revenue from the half-cent sales tax is the cornerstone of "a 10-year plan for us to be financially solid."
We opposed Rohnert Park's sales tax measure in 2010, calling on the city to enact spending cuts and pension reforms before asking for a tax hike.
Voters entrusted the city with a local revenue source that can't be diverted, and Gonzalez and the council delivered with budget and pension reforms.
The city realized savings of $3.3 million through its new labor contracts, which brought salaries back in line with other Sonoma County communities.
Employee concessions included lower tiers for both salaries and retirement benefits for new hires. All employees now pay their full share of pension contributions — 9 percent of salary for public safety employees, 8 percent for other employees.
Other savings include a new 12-hour schedule for police officers to reduce overtime expenses.
Credit is due for city employees who recognized the need for savings, the council for making difficult choices such as closing neighborhood swimming pools and Gonzalez for taking a long-term approach to the city's financial health.
Rohnert Park will receive annual payments from the Graton Rancheria casino, which opens Nov. 5, but most of that money is committed to operating a fire station that's to be built on the west side of Highway 101.
The city also hopes to see its revenue base expand with the increasing likelihood of new residential and commercial development in the northwest section of town and near the new Green Music Center at Sonoma State University. For now, however, property taxes are relatively flat and, due to a slow recovery, sales tax receipts are growing only 2 percent to 3 percent annually, leaving the city chronically short of meeting its obligations to maintain roads, parks and public safety.
We have deep reservations about permanently increasing local sales tax rates. In Rohnert Park, however, the City Council cut spending unsparingly and negotiated far-reaching pension reforms, yet still faces budget deficits for the foreseeable future.
Rohnert Park needs adequate revenue to maintain public services. The Press Democrat recommends approval of Measure A.
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