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Rohnert Park paving way to put sales tax renewal on fall ballot


Facing a $1.4 million budget deficit, Rohnert Park officials have in recent weeks laid the groundwork to ask voters later this year to extend Measure E, the half-cent city sales tax they approved in 2010.

The City Council has declared a fiscal emergency, the necessary condition for a special election; set aside $25,000 for such an election; and commissioned an opinion poll to gauge residents' sentiments about renewing the tax originally meant to end in 2015.

City Manager Gabe Gonzalez, who first floated the idea of an extension last year, said no official discussions about doing so are underway and that examining the possibility is just due diligence for a city with financial difficulties.

But the opinion poll results reviewed by the council on Tuesday concluded explicitly that "a measure to continue the existing ... sales tax measure for city services is viable for the Nov. 2013 election."

The poll of 376 residents cost about $30,000, Gonzalez said. It found that 69 percent of those interviewed would support extending the tax. Measure E passed with 55 percent of the vote and brought in 14 percent of the city's discretionary funds this year. It is projected to bring in $3.2 million next year.

Gloria Colter, assistant county registrar of voters, said a special election could cost between $46,940 and $84,492, based on Rohnert Park's 18,776 registered voters.

Councilman Jake Mackenzie on Wednesday all but said voters will be asked to renew the tax.

"I'm not prepared to say absolutely, 100 percent yes, but I think logic would tell you that having asked these questions ... we want to know what the likelihood of success would be," he said. "We've found that the likelihood of success is high."

The Sonoma County Taxpayers Association would have to study it further to decide whether to support or oppose any extension pitch, said the group's president, Dan Drummond.

But Drummond said his initial reaction was disappointment.

"It's part of the continuing pattern where elected officials make representations to voters that they're not going to keep," he said, referring to Measure E's sunset provision.

But Gonzalez, whom the taxpayer association last year recognized for helping restore the city's fiscal solvency, said, "It's something we need to be talking about; we're going to have a $3 million hole in our budget once it sunsets."

The survey was a boost for city officials in several ways, with respondents expressing a sunnier view of the city's direction and leadership than was found in a survey in 2009, when the city was wrestling with a $10 million deficit.

The survey four years ago found that just 45 percent of residents said the city was on the right track, while 34 percent said it was on the wrong track.

The new survey found that 67 percent of residents thought the city was headed in the right direction, while 21 percent thought it was on the wrong track.

Opinions of the City Council had improved, too, with respondents giving it a 67 percent favorable rating, compared to 49 percent in 2009.

And the city government as a whole is now held in dramatically higher regard, according to the survey: it now has a 70 percent favorable rating compared to 21 percent in 2009.

(You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.)