Council puts sales tax measure on ballot

If passed, half-cent increase would go to roads

PASO ROBLES — Despite some vocal concerns from the public, the Paso Robles City Council will leave it up to the people to decide the fate of a proposed half-cent sales tax increase.

The money used from the tax will go toward roads, which was the top priority from prospective city voters, according to polling information provided by FM3, a polling firm hired by the council.

The council unanimously, 5-0, approved adding the general tax measure to the Nov. 6 ballot during Wednesday night’s nearly four-hour council meeting.

“I think we should give the public the opportunity to vote it up or down, no question,” Councilmember John Hamon said. “I think we are demonstrating there is need. … To me we need to give the public the opportunity to say what they want to do. I think at this point the question is easy, put it on the ballot.”

Nearly all of the comments from the public were not favorable of the measure. People questioned the need for the tax, called out current and past council spending decisions and do not believe the money will be spent for its intended purpose, fearing it will be gobbled up by the state.

“There is one way in my view to protect this money,” said resident Cody Ferguson. “I can support your tax increase, even a percent and the half that you have already done, if it goes into an infrastructure fund for roads, fire service, infrastructure period.”

Longtime resident Dale Gustin said he could no longer trust government.

“Several people have said tonight you got to learn to live within your means,” Gustin said. “When are we going to learn to cut our expenses and live within our means? And do what is right by the city. Fix the streets and budget for the streets.”

The council opted for a general tax measure, which needs 50 percent plus 1 from the voters to pass, instead of a special tax that would have required approval from two thirds of voters.

The measure crafted by the city attorney that will be before voters reads: “To upgrade deteriorating streets and sidewalks: and address other general revenue purposes; shall a measure be adopted approving an ordinance establishing a one-half of one percent sales tax providing approximately $4,750,000 million annually for 6 years, requiring annual audits, quarterly reports to the public by the citizens oversight committee, and using all funds for Paso Robles only?”

If approved, the Paso Robles combined sales tax would rise from 7.75 percent to 8.25 percent.

Paso Robles voters approved a half-cent increase to the sales tax in 2012 with the funds also being used to improve roads. This also is set to expire in six years.

In addition to the polling firm, city staff with some council members in attendance held informational meetings throughout the city, including a forum on Monday at Flamson Middle School, to get feedback from the community. Nearly 15 such meetings were put on by the city.

Council allowed public comment on the agenda item at Tuesday’s regular meeting and also carried the item over to Wednesday for another round of public comment.

City Manager Tom Frutchey outlined the results of the polling information and said it mirrored the survey results the city gathered from its public meetings.

According to the polling firm, 64 percent of respondents agreed that the city needs additional funding to meet the expectations of residents and 59 percent of respondents said that they would support a 1 percent measure in November. The survey has a 4 percent margin of error.

Residents also offered suggestions for funding priorities — 87 percent of respondents rated road improvements as the City’s top need. In addition, respondents identified job retention/creation efforts (72 percent), fire protection (71 percent), and disaster/wildfire preparedness (66 percent), as the community’s other three top needs.

The polling found that a substantial number of citizens are not aware of current challenges the city faces. For example, the city’s current pavement management index (PCI) rates Paso’s streets and roads at a 54 out of 100. Even with the .5 percent sales tax measure approved by the city’s voters in 2012, which has generated an average of $5 million a year and is in addition to the money the city is already spending on roads, the PCI index is not improving.

In order to get to a more acceptable rating of 84, the city would have to spend $25 million a year for the next 10 years.

Similarly, most residents are not aware that the city has only two fire engines on duty at any one time, and in 2017, there were 700 instances where both engines were on calls, and would have been unavailable if another 9-1-1 call came in.

Although the council vote was unanimous, Councilmember Jim Reed initially expressed his displeasure calling it a “nuclear” option.

“I can’t say for sure that this is a good idea,” Reed said. “I think raising the sales tax is like a nuclear option. If we are in that dire of straits, raising the taxes would be a nuclear option, it would be something that would be a last resort.”

During council discussions and subsequent straw votes, Reed got behind the ideas of the lower half-cent increase instead of a full cent and sunsetting the tax in six years.

In addition to the sales tax measure, the city voters will also be asked to decide if the office of City Clerk should be appointive; and if a tax should be imposed on cannabis businesses if any are, at some point in the future, approved within the city.

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