They all must be crazy, right?
City leaders in Sebastopol and Healdsburg are going to ask voters to approve tax increases in November. Their counterparts in Petaluma are likely to do the same thing. The Sonoma City Council went to the voters for higher taxes last month, and the leaders of Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park and Cotati had their hands out in 2010.
Are they all completely out of touch with reality? Have they not heard that the economy stinks, the electorate is fed up with the high cost of government and that a good chunk of our political class (Republican office-holders in Sacramento and Washington, primarily) is so convinced of the evil of taxation that its members have signed a pledge never to support additional taxes?
Well, no. Our local elected leaders aren't out of touch, and they aren't crazy.
Sebastopol City Councilwoman Kathleen Shaffer summed it up on Tuesday night:
"This will be one of the hardest votes I will have to make here on the council, but I have to make sure we are fiscally solid," she said. "I still oppose the tax, but I am voting because the city needs it."
Healdsburg Mayor Gary Plass also voiced his aversion to new taxes: "I'm not a big tax guy. I don't think any of us are big tax people." Yet he and his colleagues unanimously voted to put a sales tax measure on the November ballot.
Nobody likes taxes, especially now. The headlines are full of bad news about a weak economy, the erosion of government services, the high cost of public pensions and even the outrageous self-serving decisions that continue to be made by some government officials (trustees of California State University give 10-percent raises to incoming university presidents as they also threaten to reduce enrollment opportunities; the state Department of Parks and Recreation allows a secret vacation buyout program for headquarters staff as it threatens to close 70 parks statewide).
But while we may hate taxes, and distrust government, we like what taxes and government provide: roads, water, parks, public safety, sewage disposal and a hundred other everyday necessities that we don't get from all of those private businesses that we so admire for being "run like a business."
This is not to suggest that we let local government off the hook for its mistakes and indulgences. Public pensions — particularly for those at the top of the food chain and in public safety — have become out of step with reality. There are some city councils in Sonoma County that seem to prefer throwing spitballs at each other to solving problems in their communities. We should hold their feet to the fire to do better.
But we should also understand that they can't do much of the daily nuts-and-bolts work that we want them to do without proper resources. And, increasingly, the resource that's in short supply is money.
Sacramento and Washington are abandoning local government; their "belt-tightening" is largely a trickle-down squeeze that transfers the pain onto cities and counties. The economic meltdown has compounded the problem, with plummeting real estate values and faltering consumer confidence giving a one-two punch to local government's most reliable revenue sources, property taxes and sales taxes.
Our local leaders have responded by reducing the size of city staffs, by imposing work furloughs, by negotiating less lucrative contracts with employee unions and, yes, by reducing services. But while that for the most part has staved off drastic steps (such as the bankruptcies of Vallejo and Stockton and, possibly, San Bernardino) it hasn't been enough to fix city budgets for the long term.