Atascadero puts sales tax increase on Nov. 4 ballot

Increasing Atascadero's sales tax would help upgrade roads, described as the city's "biggest challenge," city leaders say. Shown here is pavement damage on East Front Street.
Increasing Atascadero's sales tax would help upgrade roads, described as the city's "biggest challenge," city leaders say. Shown here is pavement damage on East Front Street. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Atascadero voters can decide in November whether they want to raise the city’s sales tax for 12 years, the City Council unanimously agreed Tuesday night.

After several discussions, a public poll and community outreach over the last few months, the council voted 5-0 Tuesday to place a half-percent general sales tax measure on the Nov. 4 ballot. They also agreed to pair it with an advisory measure directing the revenue to road repairs.

Atascadero's current sales tax rate is 7.5 percent. The increase would bring it to 8 percent, keeping the city on par with San Luis Obispo County's six other cities that have all passed similar measures. The county’s unincorporated areas remain at the state's 7.5 percent base tax on sales receipts.

“If I don’t vote to let (voters) decide, then I’m making the decision. And I don’t think that’s right,” Councilwoman Heather Moreno said.

If approved by voters, the tax bump is expected to generate $1.7 million to $2 million annually for 12 years.

Council members said the city needs the money to keep its already shabby roads from falling further into disrepair. Money to fix Atascadero’s 169 miles of roadways now comes from a variety of taxes, but those dollars compete with other essential services.

“We have to stretch our dollars with police, fire and parks and often times there’s not enough money for roads,” Public Works Director Russ Thompson said.

Even with the half-percent sales tax increase, not all streets would be repaired — but Thompson said that, overall, the city’s streets would be in better shape. The city has a list of which roads are worse off than others and would make repairs off that list.

“It’s not to say this is a silver bullet and we’ll fix every road in town but it will be a substantial improvement,” Thompson said.

The council could have opted to place a specific tax measure on the ballot for roads, but was advised by a polling firm earlier this year not to do so. That’s because a specific tax — which restricts the money to a particular use — requires a two-thirds vote to pass, while a general sales tax needs a simple majority approval.

The firm found that 61 percent of those polled would pass a general tax measure paired with an advisory measure suggesting the funds should be used for road repairs.

A dozen or so members of the public spoke about the item Tuesday, with most in favor of putting the proposed tax increase to a public vote.

“Anybody who’s ever driven our streets knows how bad our roads are,” resident Mike Anderson said. “I think this is something we need to do.”

Those who opposed the measure Tuesday either said they wanted it to be a specific tax designated for roadwork, or preferred the money to be spent on other things, like making improvements to Atascadero Lake.

The council also considered public feedback the city staff has collected while hosting talks on the issue over the last few months. Distrust over government spending was a primary concern city staff encountered, Thompson said.

The ballot measure would include the creation of a citizens’ advisory committee to oversee expenditures of the sales tax, an annual spending report and a 12-year sunset clause.