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Valley Communities Try To Find Just The Right Balance On Public Safety Taxes

Aug 16, 2016

Throughout the Central Valley, communities are grappling with how to keep their towns safe with enough cops and firefighters on the beat. Many have found that traditional revenue sources simply aren’t enough, and are turning to special taxes. But how they are doing so diverges down several different paths. Community reaction to tax increases seems to plays a big role in how local political leaders decide to act.

As children, most of us went to sleep hearing the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In it, Goldilocks tries three bowls of porridge: one too hot, one too cold but one is just right.

That story is similar to the choice local officials are faced with when trying to determine what is ‘just right’ about getting new money to fund government services.

"To gain the public's trust and ensure them that these funds will only be used for public safety," Bill Ritchie, Madera County

  This summer Kern County, Madera County, and Visalia have all considered asking voters to pay more to improve public safety. In Madera, the concern is fire protection. In Kern County, low oil prices have caused massive budget cuts. And in Visalia council members are trying to augment an existing safety sales tax.

But all three are trying different bowls of porridge.

In Madera, the board of supervisors decided to place an initiative on the March 2017 ballot asking for a one-cent sales tax with about 80% of the revenue going to fire protection. Fire coverage has remained stagnant for decades despite large increases in population. This has driven insurance rates sky high.

Because the funds are going to a dedicated need, two-thirds of the county’s voters will have to support it.

Bill Ritchie is on the committee tasked with selling the sales tax to the public and says there is a reason they opted for the harder goal.

“To gain the public’s trust and ensure them that these funds will only be used for public safety, meaning law enforcement and fire protection. Although it would be a higher threshold to achieve a victory in passage, the board of supervisors has opted for the special tax option as opposed to a general tax,” Ritchie says.

Ritchie says polling they have done shows about 72% of residents support the tax and they feel that they can reach the two-thirds support necessary for passage.

That is not the case in Visalia, where city officials say where support for tax increases is a bit cooler.

"Basically the returns on those indicated that the 50% vote is something they got positive returns from. Anything higher was less likely to be something that would be passed," Jason Salazar, Visalia Police Chief

The Visalia City Council is asking for a tax increase that is smaller, a half-cent, but because the revenue is NOT dedicated to a specific goal only a bare majority of voters would need to endorse it.

That has a strong pull in the valley where other tax increases over the past year have gone down to defeat.

Visalia police Chief Jason Salazar acknowledges the council is taking this approach because polling indicated it’s all the support they could achieve, despite the public not having assurances that the council will actually spend the money on public safety.

“Basically the returns on those indicated that the 50% vote is something they got positive returns from. Anything higher was less likely to be something that would be passed,” Salazar says.

But the flexibility has perks too, Salazar says, including being able to use the money on streets or parks. If voters are unhappy they can replace the councilmembers.

That vote is this November.

But resistance to taxes in the south part of the valley may be so hot that some voters won’t even get a chance to have a say.

"In my opinion, to do nothing was not the answer," Donny Youngblood, Kern County Sheriff

  The Kern County Sheriff lobbied vigorously to have a public safety tax added to the ballot, in this case the two-thirds type, but was unable to persuade the board of supervisors to take the issue to the voters. Because Kern County is highly dependent the price of oil for their tax revenue, low prices have meant much lower income and in turn broad budget cuts.

Supervisor Leticia Perez, who was the only supervisor to support a vote, says trying to get the lower threshold tax was not even considered.

“Maybe this is a time under this current crisis to maybe reconsider business as usual and think about how we can bring revenue in, desperately needed revenue, and restore some of these cuts to public safety. And other departments,” Perez says.

Sheriff Donny Youngblood says that not even considering the tax will mean layoffs and decreased coverage for parts of the sprawling county.

“In my opinion, to do nothing was not the answer. I don’t do well doing nothing when we have a problem. I felt like we should at least give the put the opportunity. It is not saying they should support the vote of the public but I think we should have put it on the ballot,” Youngblood said.

Tellingly, a campaign to apply a sales tax for Kern County’s public library system barely managed to cross the 50% measure in a June vote.

That is not a flawless predictor of what would have happened to a public safety tax, but it does illustrate the deep seated reluctance to support additional taxes. Supervisors did say they would be open to a community driven effort to place a tax on the ballot.

So it breaks down to a higher threshold with guarantees for voters. A lower number that’s easier to pass but not guaranteed. Or no vote at because taxes are just too hot.

The Goldilocks voters will have to decide what is ‘just right’.