In yesterday’s column, we summarized the Davis Downtown’s survey on the fiscal crisis. At the outset of the following analysis we warn that the survey is not a representative sample – in fact it oversamples from a highly informed population, as 89.6% of Vanguard readers and 81% overall were previously aware of the city’s fiscal crisis.
But, that being the case, we find the results sobering on the city’s chances for passing a second parcel tax this fall. If you recall from the discussion in February, Councilmember Lucas Frerichs noted that there had not been polling conducted on the chances for passing a parcel tax. The council nevertheless put a reduced sales tax measure on the ballot that would deal with employee compensation increases but not roads, parks or other infrastructure.
The key question is: “The City is likely to propose a $150 parcel tax for the November 2014 ballot. Revenues from the parcel tax would be used for repairing roads, recreation amenities (pools/parks/etc), purchase of Nugget Fields, money-saving irrigation expenditures, and other potential enhancements to the community. Would you support the adoption of a parcel tax for the above mentioned items?”
While Vanguard readers strongly back the measure, even they fall short of a two-thirds majority, with 63.3% supporting the measure. Overall, the numbers are bad. For the entire survey, 51% support the tax. If you remove Vanguard respondents, far less than half support a measure that requires a two-thirds majority.
The survey, of course, pulls heavily from a more business oriented and therefore conservative community, but the Vanguard results suggest at least that the measure will have trouble passing.
Perhaps the most sobering part of these results is that the readership bases, particularly the Vanguard readers, are found to be highly aware of the issues and if the city cannot, in the absence of a campaign, poll at 63%, what chances do they have of running a successful education campaign when even educated respondents are shy of a majority?
There are several caveats to even the Vanguard section of the poll.
First, this is not a random and representative survey and so, while Vanguard readers might be more inclined to support a parcel tax than business leaders, they may be less inclined than the general population.
Second, in addition to this not being a representative survey, perhaps the wording of the question matters. The authors acknowledge they are not pollsters and clearly some of the questions might be leading; however, for the most part, the question appears to be relatively fair.
Given more hope is the response to the questions on unfunded road maintenance work. More than three-quarters of Vanguard readers and nearly two-thirds of respondents overall were aware of the “significant street maintenance backlog” and nearly 84% of Vanguard readers and 81.5% of respondents overall were willing to sacrifice now to pay a lower total cost.
That suggests that the city needs to sell their parcel tax as a way to save money into the future.
However, despite that, it’s a close call. 71% of Vanguard readers but only 61% of respondents overall were willing to pay an additional tax to fund street repairs.
From this we conclude that the parcel tax is going to be a sell. Unlike the sales tax, which has only nominal opposition and a much lower threshold, there is no assurance that the city can pass a second parcel tax.
This represents a critical decision by the public, but also critical errors by the city council and management of the city.
As we have reported before, it was last June that City Manager Steve Pinkerton first suggested to the council that we were headed for a renewed structural deficit. It was at this meeting that the idea of a revenue measure was first floated.
It was even earlier than this that we had the presentation on the pavement maintenance issue that showed the city to heading for hundreds of millions in pavement backlogs.
But, instead of reaching out to the public in the six months between June and December, we saw almost no action in the city’s behalf. Instead, it was at the meeting right before the Christmas break where the budget update showed a $5 million deficit.
It was only through informal action by councilmembers Dan Wolk and Brett Lee that there was any kind of public outreach – the belated focus group that suggested the two tax approach.
But, had the city started this process early, they could have done polling in the summer or fall on the willingness of the public to support various kinds of tax issues. And they could have done outreach to the public to educate them on the enormity of the crisis.
However, this polling suggests even when the public is largely aware of the crisis, they are not necessarily willing to pass revenue measures. At some point, we need to cross tabulate to see whether the public that knows of the issue is more likely to support measures than those who do not.
Clearly, the council needs to do that polling for the parcel tax after the June elections. One of the questions they will answer is amount the public is willing to pay in increased taxes to fully fund road repairs.
It is a difficult question to evaluate, and it had among the highest skipped rates, perhaps suggesting an unwillingness to support any tax (which was not offered as an option, which probably taints the survey).
For the Vanguard, a narrow plurality is willing to support $150 over $50 in a parcel tax. For the overall group, 42% support $50, another 31% support $150.
Again, the question does not lend itself to clean interpretation and one of the things the council will need to do is figure out what level the voters are willing to support and also figure out exactly how much they will need.
These results have been our concern in this process all along. We are convinced that the city will pass its sales tax measure, but getting a parcel tax at two-thirds, at least according to these data, flawed as they are, suggest that this will be a tough sell in the fall.
—David M. Greenwald reporting