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Council fails to pass sales tax measure
McLewis and Maurer scuttle attempt to raise the sales tax to help fund city services
A council majority made up of Mayor Hinton, Vice Mayor Diana Rich, and Councilmember Stephen Zollman thought they’d come up with a way to ease the city’s $1.67 million budget deficit, which is currently covered by dipping into the city’s reserves.
Their plan? Call a special election and put a quarter-cent sales tax increase on the November ballot. This effort, if successful, would have raised roughly $750,000 for specific city services, including the fire department, city parks, and more. But that money didn’t come free. It would have cost the city $115,000 in election costs, whether they won or lost. (In fact, they’d just spent $10,000 of that to run a poll, gauging voters’ interest in such a proposal.)
The cost of the election — and a host of other reasons — led councilmembers Sandra Maurer and Jill McLewis to vote no on the resolution to hold a special election in November, depriving the council of the four-fifths majority required to call a special election.
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“I feel like this is rushed,” said McLewis, “and rushing isn't something that I do when I'm trying to make a tough decision. Being purposeful and strategic is how I function. And it's my opinion that unless you're putting out a fire or saving a life, a rushed decision usually isn't a good decision.”
She wasn’t wrong. It was rushed—and from the point of the view of its supporters, it had to be. From the moment the council voted on July 19 (in McLewis’s absence) to call a special election in November, the clock began ticking because of a looming Registrar of Voters deadline of August 11. The council hired a consultant to do a poll lickety split and directed city staff to draft the ballot question and accompanying ordinance, which it did.
Here was the text of the proposed ballot question: “Shall the measure to maintain Sebastopol's parks, senior center, pool, library and mental and behavioral programs, and other City funded community services, and to enhance and provide continued support for Sebastopol's fire services, by establishing a 0.25% transaction and use (sales) tax, for 10 years, providing approximately $750,000 annually, subject to an annual audit, be adopted?”
All their ducks were in a row for a yes vote last night—except the most important ducks (i.e., the votes needed to pass the measure).
The effort to run a sales tax may have been rushed—though Mayor Hinton countered McLewis’s criticism by saying that she had been planning and working on this alternative for months—but it was anything but unstrategic. The strategy was to get a Sebastopol sales tax measure on the ballot before 2024, which already has several big countywide sales tax measures scheduled, including Sonoma County Fire Prevention & Response (half-cent sales tax) and Our Kids Our Future (quarter-cent sales tax). Add to that the statewide Business Roundtable initiative, which targets local and statewide tax measures.
“I personally don’t see a successful avenue to any sort of tax measure in 2024. There's just way too many challenges,” Rich said, trying vainly to get the holdouts to change their minds.
Neither McLewis or Maurer were buying it.
Maurer, who opposed the sales tax from the very beginning, said spending $115,000 on an expensive special election, the outcome of which was uncertain, was like gambling.
“You're gambling $115,000,” she said. “Imagine $115,000! That is a lot of money to gamble.”
She accused the supporters of the sales tax measure of using “fuzzy math,” and restated her initial objection — that this wasn’t a special tax with a limited goal at all, but rather a way divert money back into the general fund, which at a previous meeting she had termed “deceptive.”
She and McLewis both suggested that the city simply wait and try again in 2024.
“Like Councilmember Mauer, I too believe there's no harm in waiting for a general election. Knowledge is power. And I feel like by waiting we'll have that,” McLewis said, noting that in several months a lot of current unknowns—who will be the new city manager, the completion of the Fire Ad Hoc Report, the result of the countywide fire measure—will be known.
Mayor Hinton tried a little last-minute horse trading—they could narrow the scope of the measure, concentrating on fire and city-run buildings—but it was clear by the opponents’ shaking of heads that this wasn’t going to cut it.
City Attorney Larry McLaughlin stepped in with a suggestion: “I suggest you step back and again consider the question you asked at a previous meeting, which is a motion to call for a special election on Nov. 7, 2023. If you don't get four votes in favor, you will then be advised by staff that there's no point in proceeding further because you're not going to get a four-fifths vote.”
Hinton proposed that motion. The vote split as expected—Hinton, Rich, and Zollman in favor and McLewis and Maurer opposed. And that was that.
There will be no immediate fallout from this decision—no layoffs or further cuts—McLaughlin confirmed later.
“We were not relying on a possible tax measure to cover anything in the approved budget,” he said. “The approved budget is a balanced budget (Editor’s note: thanks to the city’s dwindling reserves), and everything that the council ordered is covered and paid for.”
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