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Editorial: During pandemic, vote for only two Contra Costa sales taxes

Support countywide Measure X and San Pablo’s Measure S. Reject Measure V in Concord and Measure R in Orinda

By East Bay Times editorial

October 3, 2020 at 5:10 a.m.

Contra Costa County and three of its cities — Concord, Orinda and San Pablo — are seeking sales tax increases in the Nov. 3 election.

As many residents are struggling to pay their bills during the pandemic, local government tax increases should be limited to only the most essential. Especially increases in levies on sales, a regressive tax that disproportionately burdens the poor. And, as we said back in June, during this severe economic downturn tax increases should be temporary. Unfortunately, three of the four taxes do not pass both of those tests.

Of the three that don’t, we recommend that voters reject two: Measure V in Concord and Measure R in Orinda. Voters should support Measure S in San Pablo. And, with some trepidation, we urge voters to back countywide Measure X despite its excessively long time period.

Sales taxes vary by city. Across California, the base amount is 7.25%. Contra Costa residents pay an additional 0.5% for BART and 0.5% for the Contra Costa Transportation Authority, bringing the total to 8.25%.

On top of that, 13 of Contra Costa’s 19 cities add their own sales taxes, either 0.5% or 1%, except for El Cerrito which adds 1.5%. So, the total sales tax rate in Contra Costa ranges from 8.25% to 9.75%.

The proceeds from all four of the proposed tax increases could be used for any legitimate governmental purpose. While the ballot wording for each of the measures talks about how the money would be used, that wording is there to attract voters. It is not legally binding.

Elected leaders could spend the money for any program, employee salaries or fatter labor benefits. Which is why the taxes should have short-term expiration dates requiring voter approval before they are extended.

Contra Costa Measure X – Yes

Measure X would add a new countywide half-cent sales tax for 20 years. The length of the tax alone is a legitimate reason for voters to reject it. And that was almost a determinative factor for us; this measure should have had a shorter sunset period.

That said, Contra Costa County government has been under intense financial pressure, dating back long before the pandemic, to adequately provide health care for the needy in the county, address homelessness and provide fire prevention, especially in East County. And its countywide sales tax rate is lower than those in San Francisco, San Mateo, Alameda and Santa Clara counties.

With reservations, we back this measure, but worry that the revenues will be siphoned off into salary and benefit increases rather than expanded services. Contrary to the false claims of backers in the ballot arguments, Measure X does not contain provisions for an oversight board.

It will be up to the county Board of Supervisors to demonstrate on an ongoing basis that the money is being wisely spent to deliver additional services. They should also plan to make do with the additional money; they shouldn’t expect support for an additional tax in the future.

Concord Measure V – No

Concord voters first passed a half-cent sales tax in 2010 as the city was struggling to climb out of the Great Recession. It was supposed to be a short-term fix, and we warned at the time that, even though the tax was to be temporary, city leaders would come to permanently depend on the money. In 2014, city voters agreed to extend the tax to 2025.

Now, in the middle of a calamitous economic downturn, the City Council placed Measure V on the ballot seeking to not only make permanent what was originally supposed to be a temporary tax, but also to double it to a full 1%. No way. Voters should reject it.

Orinda Measure R – No

Orinda passed a half-cent sales tax in 2012 that’s due to expire in 2023. Measure R would extend the tax until 2041 — and double it. That’s too long without voter review. And that’s too much.

The sad part is that Orinda leaders know how to do this right. In 2012, to kick start their highly successful program to repair their roads, they went to voters and asked them to approve a sales tax increase. The money had no spending restrictions, but city officials promised it would go for roads and built in a 10-year voter review to ensure they kept their promise. And in 2014 and 2016, they won voter approval for bond measures dedicated to road repair.

Now, with the roads project almost complete, they want to extend and double the original 2012 sales tax. This time, they have a long list of improvements they say they want to spend the money on: wildfire risk reduction, emergency preparedness, storm drain repair, road maintenance, and other city services. And no clear spending plan.

Even if they had one, the 20-year length of the new tax does not provide a timely opportunity for voters to review whether they’re happy with how the money is being spent.

In sum, there’s less clarity than in 2012 on where the funds would go, the tax is twice as big this time and it will be twice as long a wait before voters get to weigh in again. Vote no.

San Pablo Measure S – Yes

In 2012, as the city tried to work out of the Great Recession, nearly three-fourths of city voters approved a 10-year sales tax measure, with an increase of 0.5% for the first five years, dropping it down to 0.25% for the last five years. That measure is due to expire in 2022.

Measure S, coming after another dramatic financial downturn, would extend the original sales tax measure for another 10 years, again starting at 0.5% for the first five years and 0.25% for the last five years.

The city faces large budget shortfalls because of the pandemic. The city is one of the poorest in the Bay Area and the job training, youth services and police coverage the city has historically provided with funding from the sales tax are critical.

The Measure S request is modest and reasonable, especially with its stepdown after five years and the 10-year expiration. Voters should approve it.

https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/10/03/editorial-during-covid-voters-should-ok-only-two-contra-costa-sales-taxes/

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