s
s
Sections
Sections
Subscribe
You've read 5 of 15 free articles this month.
Support local journalism and get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app, all starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read 10 of 15 free articles this month.
Support local journalism and get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app, all starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read all of your free articles this month.
Support local journalism and get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app, all starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
We've got a special deal for readers like you.
Support local journalism and get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app, all starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
Thanks for reading! Why not subscribe?
Support local journalism and get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app, all starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
Want to keep reading? Subscribe today!
Ooops! You're out of free articles. Starting at just 99 cents per month, you can keep reading all of our products and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?

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.

They're desperate.

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.

"We're in a very difficult situation," said Healdsburg Councilman Tom Chambers earlier this week as he and his colleagues decided to ask voters for a half-cent sales tax increase. "We won't cut our way out."

It's a situation that Chambers and other city leaders around the county will have to explain to voters between now and November. They will need to show what the choices are, what will be lost if voters are not willing to provide the boost that local government is asking for.

Sonoma, last month, and Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park and Cotati, in 2010, made the argument successfully. But this year, cities seeking tax increases will do it in what has become an increasingly fervent anti-tax atmosphere, and at the same time as our state government also is asking us to increase the statewide sales tax. Their arguments either will compete with or augment Gov. Jerry Brown's doomsday scenario in which he is telling us that failure to pass his tax increase will result in draconian cuts to our public school system.

It leaves us all with a lousy choice at a lousy time.

"It's sad that it's come to this," said Plass.

No doubt if there were a better alternative, he and other local politicians would take it. They'd be crazy not to.

(Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.)