Tuolumne County supervisors want to know whether voters would support increasing taxes to help pay for underfunded government services before deciding whether to put a measure on the ballot in the primary election on March 3, 2020.

The county released a document earlier this month called a request for proposals, or RFP, that describes what the county would want a qualified consultant to do.

“The first part of the RFP is to do that public opinion research and determine how the public would feel about a revenue measure,” said Eric Erhardt, assistant county administrator. “We’re basically asking the public what they would support.”

If the board does decide to put a tax-increase measure on the ballot, the second phase of the taxpayer-funded consultant’s work would be to try to help the county convince the public to approve it.

Erhardt said the county doesn’t have an estimate on how much hiring the consultant would cost and part of the purpose of putting out the RFP is to determine that.

“We really don’t at this point,” he said. “We’ve put together a proposal with what we’d like to do and put it out to the public to let different firms submit proposals to get an idea of what something like this is going to cost.”

The board would likely have to approve any contract that could result from the most recent RFP, Erhardt said, unless it’s included in the budget for the next fiscal year that begins on July 1 and less than $60,800, which is the legal limit for contracts that county officials can sign without the board’s approval.

In 2005, the county paid a Sacramento-based firm $19,500 to do a telephone survey to gauge public support at the time for a half-cent sales tax increase that would be used to fund county fire services, according to an article in The Union Democrat.

The survey in 2005 found that more than 70 percent of voters at the time were in support of the proposed sales tax increase, but the measure ended up failing in the June 2006 election with 45 percent approval when at least two-thirds were needed to pass.

Tax increases to improve government services and avoid cuts were discussed recently by the board and county officials at a special meeting on March 22 at Black Oak Casino Resort.

County officials said that costs are increasing faster than the county’s sources of revenue, coupled with a decline in state and federal funding. Property, sales and transient occupancy taxes are the county’s primary sources of revenue.

The RFP stated that demand for services has also increased due to people’s expectations, changes to legislation that have driven up costs for employee pensions and health care, and years of putting off maintenance as a result of the 2008 recession.

“Many of the services that (the county) provides today are either currently underfunded or are at great risk of becoming underfunded in the near future,” the RFP stated. “Not only are these programs underfunded, but many also lack the capacity to keep up with the increasing demand for services.”

County Administrator Tracie Riggs warned the board at the March 22 meeting that if something isn’t done soon to boost revenues, then officials will soon be coming forward to recommend “significant reductions in services.”

Sheriff Bill Pooley said at the meeting that he’s already had to shut down his drug investigation unit, known as the Tuolumne Narcotics Team, because state and federal funding for the unit has declined from a high of $800,000 annually to $48,000 this year.

Following a recommendation by Pooley, the board directed county staff at the meeting to put out an RFP for professional polling on the public’s support for a tax-increase measure.

Proposals are due to the county by May 3, with a tentative date for awarding a contract on June 4. If the contract is approved, the county hopes to have the survey results by Sept. 16 and present a report to the board by Oct. 1.

The deadline for the board to put a measure on the March 2020 primary election ballot is Dec. 6, which would require the board to approve an ordinance at two separate meetings on Nov. 5 and Nov. 19.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

CLARIFICATION: Assistant Tuolumne County Administrator Eric Erhardt said governments are not allowed to use public funds for lobbying in favor of tax measures.

He said if a consultant is hired to study public opinion on a possible ballot measure that would increase taxes, the second phase of their work would be to provide unbiased information to ensure that voters understand the outcome of their vote either way.