A re-examination of the number of votes needed for the Petaluma City Council to place a sales-tax increase on the November ballot may have short-circuited what appeared to be burgeoning conflict over the hike.
The council appeared poised to vote to place a general tax measure on the ballot at their meeting two weeks ago, with the amount and length to be sorted out among the seven members.
Five council members — Mike Harris, Chris Albertson, Gabe Kearney, Mike Healy and Kathy Miller — said they were ready to vote for it. They were advised that it would require a supermajority of six votes to approve.
So when Teresa Barrett and David Glass balked at approving a general tax rather than a special tax or hybrid of the two, the entire proposal seemed in jeopardy.
But in a staff report for Monday’s meeting, City Manager John Brown and City Attorney Eric Danly advised the council that a supermajority of the council requires two-thirds of the council’s approval, or only five of the seven council members.
“Last time there were a certain five votes for a general sales-tax measure and it got derailed with the six votes,” Healy said, blaming the misunderstanding on “fuzzy math.”
“I’m not aware of anything that has in the meantime … caused any of the five of us to change our minds,” he said.
But in the meantime, Healy said he reached out to Glass to try to satisfy some of his concerns.
Both Glass and Barrett said they preferred a special tax measure, one that guarantees where the tax proceeds will be spent, but one that also requires a two-thirds voter approval. Barrett said she wanted assurances that future councils wouldn’t spend the money differently than this one intends.
Polling that the city conducted for the tax showed a majority of residents would support a one-cent tax hike, but not at the two-thirds level.
Petaluma voters have rejected the past two special tax measures before them. In 2003, a proposed utility tax of 5 percent for 20 years for road improvements failed. In 2012, a 15-year parks and recreation parcel tax also failed.
The county may also seek a quarter-cent sales tax increase in November, which some say could discourage Petaluma voters from approving one or both of the measures.
Brown has recommended the council ask voters for a one-cent general tax in perpetuity, which would raise Petaluma’s local tax rate to 9.25 percent. It is expected to raise $10 million a year, which would go into the general fund to be spent at the council’s choice.
He encouraged the council to articulate its spending priorities, so voters have an idea of how the council intends to spend the proceeds.
The council has said it wants to fund road and sidewalk repair, relocation or expansion of the police and fire department buildings, restoring lost public safety positions, fixing flooding problems and building the Rainier Avenue cross-town connector.
To satisfy some of Glass and Barrett’s transparency concerns, Healy said on Monday he will suggest the proceeds be directed into a separate budget with its own annual analysis and spending plan.
“Rather than being co-mingled into the regular general fund budget, the city’s regular general fund budget, with its various revenue sources and expenditures, would continue as a stand-alone budget,” he said.