Even in the best of times, local governments in California have to scramble for funding. They live at the mercy of Sacramento, which has historically swooped in and snatched their money whenever it felt a need. And they are straightjacketed by 1978's Proposition 13, which drastically narrowed their options for raising their own revenue.
But when the economy is in the tank things get really drastic. The cities and counties and school districts, which provide our bread-and-butter government services -- police, fire, roads, education -- are forever last in line. They must go directly to their cash-strapped citizens and beg for more just to keep civilization running. Four such agencies are doing just that on this ballot.
The city of Eureka has two tax measures on the Nov. 4 ballot: Measures D and E. The first is a sales tax increase of a quarter of one percent for all purchases within the city, raising the rate to 7.5 percent. The second raises the "bed tax" -- the tax levied on hotel room rentals -- from 9 to 10 percent.
Remarkably, the city this time has taken these measures to the ballot without incurring the wrath of the Humboldt Taxpayers' League, the board of which recently voted to support the measures. In part, this is because D -- the sales tax increase -- simultaneously wipes out the unpopular Utility Users' Tax, which adds three percent to the utility bills of city residents. But Leo Sears, the league's designated spokesperson for the pro-D and E effort, said that the support largely boiled down to one fact: the city, and particularly the Eureka Police Department, really, really needs the money.
"I can assure you that if these measures do not pass, all the advances we've made here in public safety are going to go away," Sears said. (The city will be conducting a series of informational meetings on the measures -- see below for details.)
One municipality that's not so lucky: tiny Trinidad, where the city's efforts to retain a portion of its soon-to-sunset special city sales tax has met with stiff opposition from the Taxpayer's League. Trinidad's sales tax is now 8.25 percent -- which makes it Humboldt County's taxiest city, and one of the state's -- but it's set to drop down to 7.25 at the end of the year. Measure I, if it passes, would instead set the rate at a clean 8 percent over the next four years, and provide for a citizens' oversight mechanism to watch how the funds are spent.
It would mean higher bills at the hardware store, and at the town's restaurants and tchotchke emporia. But there's maybe a bigger issue: People who live in the town's ZIP code but out of its city limits, are often unfairly hit with the extra tax when they order goods over the phone or online. There is a way to protest and reverse the unfair charges, but it's a pain in the ass. Taxation without representation! The League disapproves.
The city of Arcata is also asking for a .75 percent sales tax bump, which would bring it up into line with Trinidad. Arcata is asking voters for a straight 8 rate over the next 20 years, which would generate an estimated $1.5 million in revenue for the city's general fund -- cops and potholes. Measure G has pretty wide support amongst the town's establishment, but when the City Council put it on the ballot outgoing council member Harmony Groves dissented, objecting to the regressive nature of sales taxes and the far-off sunset date.
The Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified School District is the county's largest, geographically -- 500 square miles in the northeast corner of the county, taking in much of the state's two largest Native American tribes and the towns of Willow Creek, Orleans, Hoopa, Salyer and Weitchpec. The district runs seven schools in the sprawled out region, and most of them are in need of repair. So the district has put forth Measure H, which would allow the district to raise about $6 million through a bond sale. The bonds would be repaid by an additional levy on property tax bills in the area -- about $60 per $100,000 of the assessed value of each parcel in the district. To succeed, Measure H must pass with at least 55 percent of the vote.
Cyn Van Fleet, the KTJUSD's business manager, says that the $6 million the district is requesting is really only a drop in the bucket -- the majority of the school sites in the district are over 50 years old, and showing the signs. The district estimates it has about $20 million worth of work to do, Van Fleet said. But Measure H would allow the district to take care of some of the more pressing matters -- for instance, replacing the schools' outdated heating and cooling systems, without which learning up in the temperature-variable hills becomes all but impossible.
Eureka city government will be holding a series of neighborhood meetings in each of the city's five wards to get out information and take questions on the two tax measures on that city's ballot. Upcoming meetings: Wednesday, Oct. 8, at the Senior Resource Center, 1910 California St. Thursday, Oct. 9, at the EFD's Fire Safety Classroom, 3030 L St.; Monday, Oct. 13, at the Cooper Gulch Community Room, 1720 Tenth St.; and Wednesday, Oct. 15, at the EPD Annex in the Bayshore Mall. Wednesday, Oct. 22, at Eureka High's Marshall Annex, 1030 Del Norte Ave. All meetings begin at 6:30 p.m.