Over the Hill

Paso Robles needs millions to fix roads, expand fire service. A sales tax hike could help

The city of Paso Robles could ask residents to approve an additional 1 percent tax to help pay for road repairs and emergeny services needs.
The city of Paso Robles could ask residents to approve an additional 1 percent tax to help pay for road repairs and emergeny services needs. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

We Paso Roblans will vote in November on raising our city sales tax rate by half-a-penny.

Our City Council voted unanimously last Wednesday to call the election. Our present sales tax rate is 7.75 percent. If we voters approve the increase, the rate will rise to 8.25 percent.

Our current rate of 7.75 percent is the same rate now charged by our county’s other six cities. If we Roblans approve the increase, we’ll have the county’s highest sales tax rate. But the people in those other cities needn’t feel neglected. Their city councils will probably soon ask to also raise their rates.

Maybe Paso Robles is asking to raise ours first because we have many miles of streets that are crumbling. Or maybe it’s because our city, with a population exceeding 30,000, has only two fire stations and only two engines on duty.

Our city council held a special meeting last Wednesday night to decide whether to put a sales tax measure on the ballot. The original proposal was to propose a one percent increase, but after discussing it and hearing public comments, the council agreed to ask for the half-percent hike.

As you probably know, cities don’t get all of the sales tax money collected within their city limits. The state gets the most of it. The state gets all the money that’s yielded by the first six cents of the sales tax rate. Another share goes to the county. Cities get what’s left.

But the sales tax isn’t all bad news. There is also some good news to remember: All those people who come here to visit Paso Robles wine country pay sales tax. Paso Robles city manager Tom Frutchey said visitors pay 40 percent of the city’s sales tax revenue. And they also pay city bed tax.

Paso Robles is now a big tourist attraction. Who would have believed it? I can remember when Highway 101 was a two-lane strip, and Paso Robles was an overnight stop between L.A. and San Francisco. Paso hadn’t been a tourist attraction since way back when the general public believed Paso’s hot sulfur spring water cured all ailments.

But despite the wine boom, Paso Robles is still trying to recover from the Great Recession of 2008 and the following years when road maintenance money was painfully scarce. The city’s reserves for street rehabilitation are depleted. The city’s reserves for street upkeep are depleted.

But the time for wringing our hands is past. And the time for saying, “Ain’t it awful,” is past. We’re faced with a choice. The city estimates it would take $25 million per year for the next 10 years to put all of Paso’s streets into officially good condition.

In 2012, Paso Robles raised its sales tax by a half-cent. That produces about $5 million per year. If voters approve another half-cent increase, the total should be $10 million per year. That’s $15 million short of the ideal amount, but it’s better than nothing. I’ll vote for it, but I’ll watch to see that most of it goes for streets and another fire station.

Phil Dirkx’s column is special to the Tribune. He has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades and his column appears every other week. Reach Dirkx at 805-238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.