While city staff had pushed for the council to commission a poll to study voter inclinations, council opted against that approach and instead asked for the staff to return with three separate revenue measures – it would appear all parcel taxes would ask for $125 for a parks measure, $125 for a roads measure and $50 for a social services measure.
“Services that we provide today and responsibilities that we have today that we haven’t been providing for – for instance road maintenance and repairs,” Mayor Pro Tem Brett Lee explained. “I think that informs what the amount of the ask should be. I personally don’t think that we need a poll.”
Councilmember Rochelle Swanson said that she learned from the mistakes of the 2012 Parks Tax that “we need to ask for what we need after we do an assessment.” In hindsight, she believes that the parks tax would have passed at a higher rate that would have allowed the city to collect a greater portion of its parks needs versus the tax.
Therefore, she said, “we need to ask for what we need and then allow voters to make that decision.” She agreed with a commentor that “mixing taxes leads to confusion.” So she believes that parks need to be separate from roads which need to be separate from social services – “so people can make a conscious choice about what they want to support.”
That may mean they vote for one or two but not three of them, however, she fears, “human nature says if there’s confusion, it’s going to be a no. That’s the default vote. We need to be forthright
about what we’re asking for and let our community make those decisions.”
She concluded, “We likely wouldn’t need a poll.” She said a poll means “we’d be looking for what’s that magic number that’s going to make something happen.”
Councilmember Will Arnold said that the horse race value of a poll is fairly limited. “There is not a lot of good information that we’re going to glean from it,” he explained. “We know that that’s what we need to do.
“I’m trying to get at what we would glean from a poll that would really be useful,” he continued.
“I don’t see the benefit to spending money on a poll.” He warned, “It may hamstring us as to what we’re going to do.”
Councilmember Arnold believes that we need an aggressive economic development plan and to take an “all hands on deck approach.” He said, “This is one of the hands we need.”
His suggestion for the tax measure was $99 for parks and $99 for potholes. As he explained later, he preferred that to $125 as he believed it would be easier to sell to the voters.
The exception about the polling was Councilmember Lucas Frerichs. He said, “I certainly do think there’s some wisdom in proceeding with a poll.” He said he didn’t think it needed to be a $25,000 poll. “I think there’s the ability to do it for less than that and have it be just as quality,” he said. “I do think there’s a fair amount of value that could be provided from it.”
He noted that Measure D, the Parks Renewal Tax that passed in 2012, passed with 84 percent. He said that the next day after it passed, the city manager laid off a bunch of tree trimmers. “That was not a great signal to show,” he said. “I think that there was a real missed opportunity in 2012 with regard to not raising the parcel tax from $49 to a higher rate at that point, to actually more fully fund the parks department.”
Councilmember Frerichs was agreeable to a separation of taxes. “Let’s not confuse people with regards to what the parcel tax is. I think we should just do a renewal of the parks parcel tax – (but) I think we should increase it. I’m amenable to seeing what that amount should be. It should minimally be doubled.”
He noted that even doubling it would only cover one-third of the total parks costs.
Councilmember Frerichs said, “I’m not in favor of going in the direction of utility tax.” That prompted both Rochelle Swanson and Will Arnold to join in that they are not in favor of the Utility Users Tax (UUT) either, which effectively took that option off the table.
“I think we’ve actually moved the ball here today,” Robb Davis said.
“I really appreciate the conversation on polling – I agree with it,” he explained. He noted that he was really disappointed with the last poll and said, “I just was not convinced of the value of it.”
He said, “What I do think we should do is some really clear communication to our community on a number of points.” He said across the city every homeowner is paying property tax based on the value of their property. However, what we actually keep here in the city of that tax revenue “varies quite a bit… When you pay your property tax a relatively small amount of it stays here to fund the things that are closest to home.
“When we’re asking you for a parcel tax, the cool thing about that is 100 percent of it stays home,” he said. “We need people to see the value added of a relatively small parcel tax.
“These (taxes) that we vote on, we don’t have to share with other (communities) – they stay here,” he said.
“We really do need to use the information that we now have, as imperfect as it may be, to say this is our estimate of need,” he explained. He said as a back of the envelope, “we’re probably short about $8 million on infrastructure.” That is street and park maintenance that is not being covered today.
He then added to that and said they hope to get $1 million from TOT (Transient Occupancy Tax) and $1.5 million from the state funding for road maintenance. We assume that the sales tax will be renewed. We don’t know what will come in on cannabis.
“At the current time, we’re probably looking at a $4.5 million deficit, maybe a little bit less, maybe more,” the mayor said. “It could be significantly more and it will be significantly more because of pensions.”
He said that pensions are going to go perhaps as much as $7 to $10 million higher. “Can we cut our way out of that?” he asked. “We can if we downsize.” He said, “I am not optimistic that we are going to be able to fill that gap. I am optimistic that we can continue to hold the line on salary increases and the Leland model does assume COLAs of two percent per year.”
He said, “The gap is going to increase whether we add staff or not and it’s going increase significantly.”
He warned that the city is still overly dependent on tax revenue from autos and RVs and that should give us pause about the ability to maintain that source of revenue.
To sum it up, the council was not interested in a poll, the view of Councilmember Frerichs notwithstanding. The move here was away from a UUT and toward a parcel tax, special tax, with a separate measure to address specific and distinct needs.
He was looking for $125 on parks and $125 for roads where he projects each will yield $3.5 million. He wants them for ten years with built-in inflators.
He supports a $50 tax for social services which puts the tax ask at $300 per year.
Will Arnold pointed out that if Robb Davis puts his talents behind the $50, it passes easily.
Staff will come back with more formal proposals in the coming weeks and months.
—David M. Greenwald reporting