Santa Rosa voters will get to decide in November whether they want to float a $124 million housing bond to increase the supply of affordable housing in the city.
They’ll also be asked to pass a quarter-cent sales increase for six years that would raise $9 million to help close a dire city budget gap opened in large part by costs stemming from the October wildfires.
But City Council members decided the two tax measures on the upcoming ballot were enough. They rejected a proposal that would have asked voters to raise hotel bed taxes in Santa Rosa by 3 percent, a move that would have boosted city revenue by $1.5 million annually but which business groups warned might backfire by making the city less competitive for business travelers.
The decision by the City Council to place two different tax measures on the Nov. 6 ballot represented just how stretched the city finds itself as it battles both an acute housing crisis and a bleak budget picture, both of which have deepened by the October wildfires.
“It is clear to me that not only is housing desperately important in our community,” Councilman John Sawyer said. “We also need to help the community understand the desperate financial times we find ourselves in.”
The decision also reflected a deep concern that asking residents to pass three different tax measures might be a bridge too far, and result in voters rejecting all three requests. Several speakers pointed out that this year’s ballot was going to be a lengthy, complex one, and there was only so much ability to educate voters on the issues.
A few council members, including Tom Schwedhelm, had been so concerned about undermining the prospects of the housing bond that they’d previously indicated an interest in making it the only measure the city placed on the ballot this year.
But following a meeting with senior staff last week, Schwedhelm said he said was “surprised and disappointed” to see the city’s budget outlook worsen since just two months ago. If voters don’t pass the sales tax increase, he warned of “significant cuts” to the city, leading him to “very reluctantly” support the proposed tax increase,
City finance staff have said that, after using $14.3 million in reserves to bridge this year’s budget gap, city reserves have fallen so low that it will run out of money next year if revenues are boosted or cuts made.
The decision to give voters the chance to pass a housing bond, however, took center stage for most of the evening.
Jacqueline Ortiz Meza, 17, sobbed as she told the council that securing an affordable unit had been life-changing for her family.
She described how her mother and three siblings were previously forced live in a shelter after their father left them. Now, thanks to having a stable home, she’s a nursing student and her mom is learning English.
“Low-income housing can change people’s lives,” Ortiz said.
Chris Grabill, a community activist who had pushed for a countywide housing bond measure that supervisors have shelved, urged the council to support the bond, citing the “economic displacement” that so many people are facing due to the regional housing crisis.