The June primary is getting most of the political attention around the state. But locally, all eyes are on Cotati, the "hub" of Sonoma County.
On April 13, Cotati will test the waters of voter support for local tax increases, the first public agency in the county to do so since the economic downturn.
How voters will respond is anybody's guess. But Sonoma County's smallest city (population 7,170) has made a strong case for why residents should support a half-cent sales tax.
First, it's worth noting that Cotati currently doesn't benefit from any other local tax measures. No utility users tax. No local sales tax. No parcel tax. When Cotati sought voter approval in 2006 to increase the city's hotel tax we opposed it primarily for one reason: It has no hotels.
But the city makes a better case for a tax measure this time. As with many cities, Cotati, whose primary source of sales tax revenue is Lowe's, faces a fiscal crisis. Sales tax revenue has plummeted 40 percent since 2007-08. Overall, general fund revenue has dropped more than 27 percent.
In response, the city has diligently cut services, hours and staff - scaling back its staff size by 33 percent. In addition, all city employees last year agreed to take a 14-15 percent pay cut, something no other Sonoma County city has been able to achieve. Nevertheless, the city still faces a $375,000 deficit. The reductions so far have left Cotati with 4.4 city employees per 1,000 residents, the lowest ratio of any community in the county, city officials contend.
"The good news is we have tightened our belt as much as we can," City Manager Dianne Thompson said. The uncertain news is that Cotati is at a precarious point where its status as a viable city is in doubt. Without Measure A, Cotati would be forced to scale back police staff further to just nine sworn officers. The city also would contract out its dispatch services and continue exploring going to contracts with other services. The city also would continue to operate without reserves and without money for such necessities as pothole repairs.
Measure A, if approved by a majority of voters, would generate $600,000 to $900,000 a year, allowing the city to eliminate its deficit, restore some services and a few staff members while building up reserves.
The primary opposition comes from the Sonoma County Taxpayers' Association which points out Cotati's sales tax rate would jump to 9.5 percent, the highest in the county. The group contends it would put too much of the tax burden on those who shop in Cotati rather than those who live there.
Fair enough. But our guess is Cotati residents do a fair amount of shopping outside of town, and we expect they may soon see some of the tax rates they pay in neighboring communities going up as well. Rohnert Park, for example, will be seeking its own half-cent sales tax increase on June 8.
Given the cost-cutting efforts to date, Measure A is justifiable and gives Cotati residents an opportunity to decide for themselves the fate of their city. Moreover, it doesn't last forever. The tax expires automatically after five years, unless voters renew it.
The Press Democrat recommends a yes vote on Measure A in the April 13 special election.