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Cotati sales tax renewal is latest tax measure headed for November ballot

The November ballot continues to grow longer for most Sonoma County voters, as a widening number of cities opt to pursue tax measures despite the pandemic, the economic recession it spawned and myriad other uncertainties that lie ahead.

Cotati on Tuesday became the latest city to seek early renewal of an existing tax in the upcoming general election, making it the fifth to do so. The City Council voted 5-0 to place on the ballot a permanent extension of its current 1-cent sales tax that helps fund the Police Department and city services.

The other cities pursuing tax renewals include Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, Sonoma and Cloverdale. The Petaluma City Council is poised to introduce a new 1-cent sales tax to support city services at its regular meeting on Monday as well.

Two countywide sales tax measures also are expected to make the upcoming ballot ahead of the Aug. 7 deadline. A renewal of the quarter-cent tax to support roads and transit upgrades was approved earlier this month, and a new quarter-cent tax to bolster homeless and mental health services requires a second endorsement by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to put it in front of voters.

The timing faces clear political obstacles, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to imperil public health and upend the local economy, with more than 29,000 Sonoma County residents without jobs, according to the latest unemployment figures.

Social upheaval spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement, related calls for police reform and wider promotion of people of color in civic life — all in a year when the White House is up for grabs — make for unsettled electoral terrain for local tax measures, said David McCuan, political science professor at Sonoma State University.

“Taxes have become so loaded and so much of a crapshoot,” he said. “But now you have a triple whammy — four conditions, really — that indicates an uphill battle. It’s not going to be an empathy election. Voters see the hit to their pocketbook, writ-large.”

Still, McCuan said, the cities and county see the 2020 election as a better chance to pass a ballot measure than in outlying years, given the higher voter turnout that typically accompanies presidential contests. For those municipalities seeking a tax extension, going early also grants an opportunity for what McCuan called “a couple of bites at the apple,” or more than one attempt to convince voters to pass a measure before it expires.

In Cotati, the county’s smallest city, voters passed Measure G, the largest sales tax hike, in June 2014 with 53% support. Without an extension, the tax is set to expire in 2023. No sunset date is proposed in the renewal measure, so if it passes with a simple majority, voters would have to return in a subsequent election to end the tax.

“One of the most important things is to maintain where the money goes, and the fact that it stays within our city limits,” Mayor Wendy Skillman said Tuesday during the City Council’s virtual meeting. “This isn’t raising any taxes. This is maintaining the current sales tax that we have, until the voters decide to repeal it.”

Among Sonoma County’s nine municipal governments, Windsor is is the only one without a supplemental tax that supports its general fund. Rohnert Park, with its half-cent sales tax passed in 2013, is the lone permanent measure in place.

Since its approval, Measure G has provided Cotati with about $10.1 million, including more than $2.5 million in the 2018-2019 fiscal year. The majority of the sales tax revenues have been spent on street, sidewalk and public building maintenance and improvements, with about a third of the annual total helping fund the city’s Police Department. The city also has been able to bring in an extra $3.6 million in outside grants by leveraging the sales tax revenues, according to city staff.

Cotati City Manager Damien O’Bid emphasized Tuesday that failure to pass an extension could result in elimination of the Police Department in the city of about 7,500 people, requiring it to contract with a neighboring agency to provide law enforcement. Cotati will spend about 55% of its $7.6 million general fund budget this year on its 20-member police and 911 dispatch operation.

In addition, O’Bid told council members, losing Measue G revenue would set Cotati back on public infrastructure and building upgrades and result in sharp cuts to recreation programs and nearly all parks projects. Recent city polling of residents, he said, supported placing the measure before voters.

“The continuation of this vital local funding will have a significant impact on the city’s ability to provide the level of services, the emergency preparedness and infrastructure that Cotati residents expect and rely on,” O’Bid said Tuesday.

Former Cotati Councilman George Barich, a longtime critic of City Hall who was recalled in 2009 after a year in office, questioned the current council’s decision to proceed with an extension. Measure G was an expansion of a half-cent sales tax passed by voters in 2010 with 60% support.

“It is absolutely horrible what you’re trying to do here. The City Council promised 10 years ago that (the measure) would sunset. It was all a big lie,” Barich said Tuesday. “Now you’re trying to stack the deck right now by putting the tax back on the ballot. A permanent tax increase will be the death of this town. Don’t go there.”

Given the fraught timing and political context, elected officials have approached such decisions warily.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt cited the failure in March of two countywide tax measures — the quarter-cent extension for SMART and the new half-cent measure to support fire and emergency services. However, he said, polling on the two latest countywide measures — the road and transit tax renewal and the new sales tax to fund homeless and mental health services — showed both had the potential to reach the two-thirds supermajority needed to pass a special-purpose tax, and swayed him to support placing each on the ballot.

“Voters are ultimately going to decide on that first Tuesday in November. That’s what everyone deserves, to have that opportunity to say yes or no,” Rabbitt said. “For these measures, polling is important. Even though I might be a little more pessimistic, if the polling says it will pass, how can I look someone in face and say, ‘Don’t do it?’”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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