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Go tax yourself 

Talk of tax increases might have some weight this time

Hang around government meetings enough—these days, at least—and it’s not outside the realm of possibility to hear officials hint at finding new revenue streams to shore up budget deficits. After all, with most local municipalities hunting for extra funds like a crack addict licking the inside of his last plastic baggie, anything goes—even more taxes—when the situation gets bad enough.

At the county level, leaders danced around new taxes—a nasty four-letter-word in bureaucratic jargon—in early 2008 when the economy was arguably at its worst and local governments were beginning to see just how bad it would be for their bottom line. At the time, financial experts seemed to think they could get through the squeeze by trimming some governmental fat. Now, three years later, things are just as bad. And the same proposals are making the rounds again.

This time, however, there’s some oomph behind the idea. As soon as November 2012, SLO County voters could be deciding whether they want to pay a half-cent sales tax increase, increased fuel tax, traffic impact fees on new developments, or some combination thereof.

“I say let’s get going on it and I hope it has success,” County Auditor-Controller Gere Sibbach said of pursuing such taxes. He was speaking to board members of the SLO County Council of Governments on Jan. 5.

The council, dubbed SLOCOG, is the funneling agency for transportation projects in the county. With cuts from state and federal funding sources, however, local transportation money for the next 25 years is expected to come in at $1.8 billion at most—and there are $4.8 billion worth of projects.

Government officials tend to handle tax increases as if they were juggling nitro glycerin: delicately. It’s a dicey process that starts months if not years before anything goes on the ballot. This case will be no different, with members of SLOCOG leading the charge to tap the pulse of local voters.

“Until we get information from the public, we won’t know what is or is not supported,” said SLOCOG Senior Planner James Worthley.

At the Jan. 5 hearing, SLOCOG staffers went to the board of directors for an OK to proceed with finding a consultant to perform a 900-person community phone survey. The board—comprised of all five SLO County supervisors and one representative from each city—instructed staffers to go forward with the effort, but emphasized that any chance of success will require an extensive public outreach campaign, even before polling starts.

“I think the big kiss of death with this poll would be to put it out prematurely,” Arroyo Grande Mayor Tony Ferrara said.

Alluding to previous special tax increases that have fallen on their faces in previous years, board members seemed skittish about moving forward with anything without first being able to make a case to the public about how bad it’s hurting, and second, getting a good feel for whether the public will be willing to chip in.

The thing you have to know about tax increases sent to the electorate is they’re rarely a complete crapshoot. Local officials plan well ahead of time, relying on consultants, poll results, and microscopic analysis of how the election will turn out and—here’s the kicker—how to phrase the measure and when to put it on the ballot to raise the odds of success.

In 1990, SLOCOG polled voters about a proposed tax increase ballot measure. Back then, however, it was clear voters weren’t on board. The agency chose not to move forward.

Speaking to SLO County supervisors on Feb. 22, Assistant County Administrator Dan Buckshi once again laid out proposals hinted at in 2008 that would include the SLOCOG proposals as well as a 1- to 2-percent increase in the Transient Occupancy—or “hotel”—Tax, and a .05-percent business license tax on gross sales.

A sales tax increase, for example, could generate between $20 million and $25 million annually countywide, and allow the county to free up millions of its general fund dollars that typically go to transportation projects.

So for the moment, all eyes seem locked on SLOCOG to gauge public support or ire.

“I think we’re, for now, basically going to sit back and see how that plays out,” Buckshi said.

As of press time, SLOCOG staff had made presentations in San Luis Obispo and Grover Beach on Feb. 1 and March 7, respectively, with plans to hit every city in the county with an update of its effort. Officials plan to have a consultant picked in April.

Though the effort has seemed to raise few eyebrows, a countywide tax increase on the ballot could hit some turbulence with SLO City officials.

SLO is looking to renew its half-cent sales tax—enacted under Measure Y—by November 2014. According to City Manager Katie Lichtig, city officials feel hopeful they’ll have enough support from voters and believe a November 2012 election would net the best results. If SLOCOG hits the ballot at the same time, it could slam voters with multiple tax-increase proposals and effectively guarantee neither will pass.

“That’s one of the strategic issues that SLOCOG wanted the city to be aware of,” Lichtig said. “That we’d be watching that issue keenly so that we could be sure that we were being strategic about when we went to voters—when SLOCOG went to voters.” 

News Editor Colin Rigley tried to fake his own death to avoid taxes but only sprained his ankle. Send condolences to crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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