Recent polling commissioned by the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors suggested that a majority of local voters in next year’s elections would support increasing taxes to fund government services, despite many not believing the county’s finances are being well managed.
The board voted 4-1 at a public meeting on Tuesday to move forward with putting measures on the ballot for the March 3 election that would increase the county’s sales and hotel taxes, which are among the lowest in California.
County Supervisor Anaiah Kirk said he opposed moving forward with the measures because he believed the county isn’t putting up enough of a fight against the state, which he noted has a projected $21 billion budget surplus this year.
Kirk requested to have county staff facilitate a meeting with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office to give a presentation on the county’s budget woes, but County Supervisor and Board Chairman Karl Rodefer declined because he didn’t want to “undercut” other ongoing lobbying efforts by the California State Association of Counties, to which he’s a delegate.
“I want the Governor’s Office to see what rural counties are faced with and see the services we’re cutting and people we’re laying off,” Kirk said in an interview of why voted no to the tax measures. “No one’s willing to fight the state, it’s easier to just roll over.”
Results from recent polling to gauge the likelihood of voters supporting such measures were presented to the board at the meeting by the Oakland-based consulting firm FM3 Research, which was hired by the county in July for $38,500.
The firm conducted 403 interviews between Aug. 12 and 19 with registered voters in Tuolumne County who were likely to vote in next year’s election, which included people who were reached online, on landline telephones and cell phones.
Out of those interviewed, 65 percent said they would support raising the county’s sales tax and 60 percent would support increasing the Transient Occupancy Tax, often referred to as a “hotel tax.”
Nearly 75 percent said they understood the county was in need of additional revenue.
“This was a pretty high number relatively speaking to what we see in some other types of communities,” said Curtis Below, partner and chief operating officer of FM3 Research.
However, 48 percent said they don’t believe the county’s finances are being well managed and 34 percent said they are being well managed.
The results also showed 43 percent believe the county is on the wrong track, 39 percent think it’s headed in the right direction, and 18 percent either didn’t know or didn’t have an opinion.
The board had a 47 percent approval rating, while the county government overall had a 53 percent approval rating.
“At the same time there’s a strong feeling about need, there are some concerns about fiscal management,” Below said.
The county government is being reorganized due to a $4.2 million projected budget deficit for the current fiscal year through June 30, which has required cutting back some services and laying off several employees.
Raising the county’s sales tax rate from 7.25 percent to 8.25 percent would provide an additional $4.6 million for the county each year, according to estimates.
The rate of 7.25 percent is the minimum required by the state, which keeps more than 6 percent of that.
Increasing the county’s Transient Occupancy Tax, or TOT, from 10 percent to 14 percent and extending it to RV parks and private campgrounds would provide an additional $2.3 million annually.
Half of the people interviewed were asked for their opinion on increasing the TOT before being asked about a sales tax, while the other half were asked about the sales tax first.
Support for a TOT increase dropped to 50 percent when people were informed about a potential sales tax being on the ballot as well, but support for sales tax remained about the same even when they became aware of a separate proposal to increase the TOT.
Below described the result as “a little bit counterintuitive” given that the TOT is paid mostly by visitors renting accommodations like hotel rooms, while sales tax is charged to everyone when they make a purchase.
The results also showed voters overwhelmingly found maintaining fire protection and emergency response services as the most important priorities to them, while preventing libraries from closing, requiring citizens’ oversight and providing tourist services were among the least.
Most supervisors expressed surprise at the level of support for the tax increases, especially considering how voters have rejected several in the past.
A poll conducted in 2006 found that 70 percent of voters were in support of increasing the county sales tax to 7.75 percent, but the measure failed to pass in June of that year with only about 45 percent in support.
Voters approved increasing the TOT from 8 to 10 percent in 2010, but then rejected a measure in 2012 that would have expanded the tax to RV parks, campgrounds and other lodging businesses not currently included.
Rodefer said he “hates taxes,” but that operating costs are exceeding annual growth in revenue.
“I certainly never ran for office to raise taxes,” he said. “This is something I don’t think any of us want to do.”
County staff were directed to return to the board with proposed resolutions for placing both sales and TOT tax increases on the March 3 ballot, which has to be done before Dec. 6.
Following the vote on the tax measures, the board got an update from County Administrator Tracie Riggs on the status of the final proposed budget.
The board is expected to consider approving the budget on Sept. 17, which could include letting go of nine employees whom the board tentatively approved for layoffs at public hearings last month.
Most of the staffing cuts have come from the county Community Resources Agency, which is being split into separate departments for planning and public works.
Some of the people who get laid off will be able to apply for several other newly created positions in the new departments, though for some that won’t be an option.
Planners Renee Hendry and Natalie Rizzi are among those proposed to be laid off.
Hendry advocated for allowing them to keep their current jobs as opposed to creating new positions, which she said would ultimately cost more and diminish the quality of service they provide.
“If I am laid off, the proposed pay for the new positions would not be sufficient to support my household,” she said.
Charles “Chuck” Lakamp, of East Sonora, said he’s a working contractor and has concerns about how the cuts will affect his ability to get things like permits and plan checks completed in a timely manner.
Lakamp said he didn’t believe the county should lay off the agency’s director, David Gonzalves, who was among those on the list proposed to be cut.
“Dave Gonzalves was instrumental in turning around a department that did pretty much damn little to one that’s finally working on your behalf and everybody else’s,” he said.
During the discussion on taxes, Lekamp also said he believed the county should do more to encourage population growth as a way of getting additional revenue.
County Supervisor Ryan Campbell said he was also concerned about the proposed cuts to the agency.
“I agree with those who’ve come to the podium to say that they’re worried that the changes we’re considering will impact services at CRA,” he said. “I think they probably will, to be honest with you.”
The board is scheduled begin interviewing people for the newly created public works director and community development director positions next week.
In addition, Riggs told the board that the $231,000 was added back into the proposed budget to reinstate previously frozen positions in the District Attorney’s Office, Sheriff’s Office, Probation Department, and Animal Control.
There was also $35,000 added back into proposed budget for operating the Tuolumne County Library’s bookmobile that delivers books to underserved areas.
Riggs noted that the restructuring will continue into the next fiscal year, which is already projected to have a net shortage of $2.7 million.
The county recently found out that it will have to pay the state $200,000 per year for operating the Tuolumne County Superior Court at the new state-owned courthouse, which is under construction at the Law and Justice Center.
Court facilities are housed in two county-owned buildings in downtown Sonora.
Riggs said that the county could get a discount from the state if it continues housing at least some court operations in the existing courthouses, which she’s looking at with Presiding Judge Donald Segerstrom.
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4530.