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Sales Tax Increase Won't Be on June Ballot After Split Council Vote

Councilmembers Len Stone and Mary Ann Nihart voted against the sales tax measure despite a pro-tax crowd.

A vote of the Pacifica City Council Monday night killed a half-cent sales tax increase measure on its way to the June ballot.

Councilmembers Pete DeJarnatt and Sue Digre supported the measure, which was by the Financing City Services Task Force, an appointed advisory committee charged with engineering a way out of the city’s $700,000 annual deficit and saving its diminishing reserve fund in 2008, while Councilmembers Mary Ann Nihart and Len Stone opposed it.

The sales tax increase was put forth by the task force, but it was the preferred option. Others include outsourcing law enforcement with the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, slashing discretionary expenses like offering extra operation hours at local libraries, senior programs and funding Pacifica Community Television and the . The tax measure needed at least two-thirds approval from the four councilmembers (Jim Vreeland his position earlier on Monday).

After voting to declare a fiscal emergency in Pacifica, just one of three components necessary to putting the sales tax measure on the June ballot, Stone and Nihart gave different reasons for voting against actually approving the tax increase.

Stone said he didn’t believe the council had enough information about the law enforcement outsourcing option, second in the task force’s preferred proposals, to ask voters to approve a tax increase. The city does not yet know how much money it could save by contracting law enforcement with the sheriff’s office, as it still needs to meet with its police unions and negotiate a yet-to-come bid from the sheriff.  

“When I look at options, I see the half-cent sales tax and option B, the biggest component of that being outsourcing the police department and with that I see a lot of question marks,” he said. “There are lot of unknowns with that, and a lot of people brought up those questions about service levels, what will happen in x event and those are all questions that we can’t answer right now. What is the true cost? We won’t know that until get real proposal from them.” 

Nihart said that she didn’t think the time was ripe for another tax increase campaign, especially after a fire assessment tax campaign she spearheaded , and that the city needed more time for public outreach and education before asking for new tax revenues. Plus, what if the city has to raise more revenue, either through cuts or another tax, even if the sales tax increase were passed?

“I’m not convinced we can even manage to get the tax passed,” she said. “I’ve been talking to many political consultants, everybody I can think of, and they say the chances are slim, it will be a battle,” she said. “But if we put it out there and we pass it and then have to raise more revenue through cuts and losses of services, what does that say, what does that say to public?”

Many community members, including former officers, spoke in favor of the sales tax increase before the council voted.

Most, however, drew a connection between passing a sales tax increase and saving the Pacifica Police Department from outsourcing.

Edward Demartini, who worked as a Pacifica Police Officer for 30 years, said it was the council’s responsibility to preserve the police department and cast doubt on the level of service residents would receive from the sheriff’s office and whether the city would really save money by switching to the sheriff, which pays its deputies much more than a Pacifica Police officer makes.

“Outsourcing the police to the sheriff does not bode will for this city,” he said.

Dave Bertini, formerly a Pacifica Police Department captain and now a commander at the Menlo Park Police Department, delivered a heated speech in favor of the sales tax on the grounds of saving his old department.

“I am disturbed by what I’m hearing here,” he said. “I worked for the city for 25 years prior to leaving and what I’m hearing now, you want to kick the can down the road and deal with it another time…You need to put the half-cent sales tax on the ballot in June and let residents vote on it. If you don’t, you're basically saying, 'let’s outsource the police department.'”

But, as Bruce Banco, chair of the Financing City Services Task Force, pointed out after the public comment period, a sales tax increase would not necessarily save the police department, and that rhetoric is misleading. 

“It’s unfortunate that there is this perception that we’re doing the tax to save the police. That’s not the issue. Vote for the tax to save that issue right there,” he said, pointing at a graph on the wall showing Pacifica’s reserve fund, now at less than $1 million, plummeting to zero by 2017. “What we have is a revenue problem.”

Staff has been instructed to negotiate a possible outsourcing plan with its police unions, and after that the sheriff’s office should be able to provide city with hard numbers for a takeover. At that point, the council could decide to put the half-cent sales tax measure on the November ballot, shutter the police department or make other cuts.

What do you think about the council's vote?

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Mary Ellen March 01, 2012 at 05:54 AM
The Task Force put forth the recommendations, but the vote to do so was not unanimous. It was approved 5-3 with one member abstaining. I was one of the "no" votes. Mary Ann and Len were also very clear over the past weeks about their apprehension in moving forward with a June sales tax. Anyone who attended these meetings (Tribune staff, Camden, and others) were witness to these discussions, and yet these details have not been reported. The minutes of the task force meetings are available on-line and document some of this discussion and debate. I admire Len and Mary Ann for having the courage to make the "un-popular"(at least in the Council Chamber room) decision. But then, I think that this is their job. Although I did not support the June sale tax initiative, I personally support a sales tax, I support our Police Department and would prefer that we are able to keep them rather than outsource and I support Mary Ann and Len for making their decision based on fact (or in this case, lack there-of) and not political expediency.
Camden Swita March 01, 2012 at 06:09 AM
Mary Ellen, I wrote a report about the task force meeting where the sales tax measure vote took place. In that story is greater detail about the task force's discussion and a quote from Len about his distaste for a tax, although Mary Ann wouldn't comment. This story is specifically about the Monday night meeting, and I wasn't about to recount all previous meetings.
Todd Bray March 01, 2012 at 03:06 PM
The sales tax and the survival of our police department are two separate unrelated issues. The sales tax if ever approved by the votes in no way whatsoever guarantees the police department will not be outsourced. The two items are structurally and fiscally unrelated to each other. Not supporting the sales tax has nothing to do with supporting the police department.
hutch March 01, 2012 at 04:10 PM
Mary Ellen, by no fault of yours IMO the task force failed Pacifica miserably. It seems from the start they had approving a tax as their goal. They constructed the survey in a way that limited choices to the outcome they wanted. There was virtually no data provided to help us decide. And there was no opportunity to choose cutting our main problem which is wages and benefits.

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