Let SLO voters decide the future of Measure Y sales tax

letters@thetribunenews.comApril 5, 2014 

300 dpi 4 col x 4.75 in / 196x121 mm / 667x410 pixels Wes Killingbeck color illustration of hands placing paper votes into red, white and blue ballot box with a lock. San Jose Mercury News 2005

KEYWORDS: ballot box vote voting american democracy lock paper voter krtgovernment government krtnational national krtpolitics politics krteln election krteln2004 krteln2006 krtuspolitics u.s. us united states krt llustration ilustracion grabado balota caja manos americano democracia eleccion sj contributor coddington killingbeck 2005 krt2005


Let's set aside the question of whether or not San Luis Obispo voters should approve an extension of Measure Y — the half-cent sales tax increase that's due to sunset in March 2015.

Instead, let's focus on the issue closer at hand: Whether the City Council should place the renewal of Measure Y on the November ballot, thereby giving voters the opportunity to decide whether the tax should continue.

Three City Council members believe voters should have that chance, and they voted last week to direct staff to prepare a ballot measure. Two other members — Kathy Smith and Dan Carpenter — voted no.

Normally, a 3-2 split would not be an issue. But in this case, four votes will be needed to put the measure on the ballot. We respectfully ask Smith and Carpenter to reconsider and empower voters to make this important decision for themselves.

Measure Y revenue is of huge importance to the city. It is expected to generate $6.5 million this year — 12 percent of the city's general fund budget. Loss of that funding will mean major cutbacks for a city that, like the rest of California, is only now getting back on its post-recessionary feet.

We don't believe SLO residents want that. A recent poll of 400 registered city voters shows that the majority already supports extending Measure Y. When initially asked, 64 percent of respondents supported extending the tax; after hearing a review of how the money is used, 72 percent favored extending Measure Y.

Yet if Smith and Carpenter have their way, voters will not even get the opportunity to decide this for themselves. Carpenter said he won't support the measure because it amounts to a tax increase, since Measure Y is due to expire. No one is claiming otherwise, so we're not quite sure why that's relevant or important.

Smith said she would support putting a half-cent special-purpose tax on the ballot, provided 100 percent of the money is earmarked for capital improvement projects. We have several issues with that:

*A special-purpose tax requires two-thirds voter approval to pass, while a general purpose tax needs only a simple majority. Two-thirds approval is a ridiculously high bar; it dooms the measure to failure and could thwart the will of the majority if the measure were to be approved by, say, 65 percent rather than 66.6 percent.

*A special tax would deny the city the flexibility to use the revenue to deal with emergencies or extraordinary circumstances.

*When voters originally approved Measure Y in 2006, they were interested in funding a number of improvements: street repair; open space acquisition; increased staffing for police, fire and code enforcement; senior services. Have voters done a complete 180, and no longer care about anything except capital projects? That's not indicated by the recent poll: Respondents were more supportive of maintaining police and fire services than, for example, repairing roads or fixing sidewalks.

Interestingly, Carpenter and Smith also have supported strengthening the police force. During budget negotiations last summer, the two were adamant about hiring two additional police officers to patrol the downtown on account of an uptick in incidents relating to transients. Mayor Jan Marx and Councilman John Ashbaugh preferred to hire just one more officer, per the police chief's recommendation. (There were only four council members voting at the time, on account of the resignation of Andrew Carter.)

Ultimately, Carpenter and Smith prevailed, and two officers were added. Salary and benefits for those two officers are covered by - you guessed it - Measure Y. If that revenue source goes away, what then? Would Smith and Carpenter be willing to lose those two additional officers? If not, what would they cut?

Again, we don't believe the decision should be in the hands of two council members. That's not democracy.

Based on annual expenditures, Measure Y costs the average SLO household $96 per year, or $8 per month. Allow voters of San Luis Obispo to decide whether it's worth it to pay $8 per month to support police, fire, roads, recreation, public works and an array of other city services.

We strongly urge the City Council to put the extension of Measure Y on the November ballot.

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