Turlock voters will get the chance to decide on a new revenue stream for the City come November, as the City Council approved putting a ¾ cent sales tax measure on the ballot.
The resolution to send the sales tax measure to the ballot was adopted by a 4-1 vote by the Council, with Mayor Amy Bublak opposing, during a special meeting held Monday.
If approved by the voters, the sales tax measure is estimated to provide $11 million in revenue annually to fund City of Turlock services.
Monday’s vote to approve the resolution was the fruition of talks that began over a year ago.
“In late 2019, the conversation started with the Council and the community as to the level of services that are being provided in the community. That was coming off a budget process that was rather difficult…that was balancing a budget that resulted in 17 positions being frozen or unfunded, as well as some other service level reductions across the City. That outreach began talking to the community and community groups trying to figure out how this community moves forward in light of challenges from a budget perspective with revenues in essence flat and expenditures continuing to increase on an annual basis. That led to the conclusion that the level of services within the community was not acceptable to many within our community. And other than being proactive and dealing with some of the needs of the community, we’ve become very reactive,” said City Manager Toby Wells.
“As we moved into 2020, this little thing called COVID-19 hit and the pandemic has exacerbated an already challenged budget situation which has led us to the further conclusion that revenues within the City to provide the level of services the community expects are continuing to be challenged,” he continued.
The City of Turlock had two polls commissioned to gauge the public’s interest in a sales tax measure.
The first poll, conducted Feb. 3 through 9 — one month before the beginning of shelter in place health orders in response to the coronavirus — found that a majority of Turlock residents would support a 1 cent sales tax increase to help fund City services.
A second poll was completed in June and found that as much as 65 percent of likely November voters would support a sales tax measure.
In the February poll, those surveyed were more supportive of a 1 cent sales tax measure than they were of a ¾ cent or ½ cent sales tax measure, however, the City Council decided to go with the lower rate on the ballot in response to the pandemic and at the advice of a citizen committee formed in June.
There was still some discussion during Monday’s meeting regarding a ¾ cent sales tax measure, as opposed to a half cent.
“I look at how much we would be able to do with the money that could be secured if it was approved in November. And, just like we’ve addressed, that $7.5 million (from a half-cent sales tax) would basically just recover us for the fiscal years that we’ve been here to try and manage. It doesn’t really help in terms of the growing population that we’re trying to create a budget that can serve. I know it could help us in terms of the frozen positions, but those are the things we’ve already seen, the community has already felt the benefit of in prior years when we were deficit spending. So, we’re only going to recover back to 2018-2017 budget in terms of staffing, when we all know that our city deserves more than the staffing levels and the service levels that happened in the mid-2010s. I think that if we do secure the half-cent sales tax, we’ll be coming back to the voters in a relatively short time, probably less than 10 years,” said Councilmember Nicole Larson.
“I understand the thought that maybe we can squeeze by with the half cent, but that’s going to put us right where we were and not really going to improve the situation that we want to get to. It’s not going to get us any better streets, it’s not going to get us full manpower on all our departments — or peoplepower,” said Councilmember Gil Esquer.
“It’s going to be in your hands where you want Turlock to end up. Do you want us to be where we were and still keep struggling or do you want us to move forward and try to address the issues that we have in front of us right now?” continued Esquer.
Another topic during the meeting was the Council being able to convince the community that they would spend the tax revenue responsibly.
“I think what the money we would be generating brings opportunity for improvement, but it also comes with a high degree of responsibility,” said Councilmember Becky Arellano.
She said that she agreed that a half-cent would not be enough to address infrastructure needs in the community.
“I think that if we’re going down the route of ¾ (cent), it’s going to be absolutely critical that during this time we follow through on some of the expectations of the community that have been laid out there. For any of these to pass, we’ve got to run a tight shop around here and we’ve got to be committed to responsible spending,” said Vice Mayor Andrew Nosrati.
Despite the Councilmembers’ commitment to fiscal responsibility, Mayor Bublak said that giving the Council more money was not the answer to the City’s budget problems.
“Everybody is making do in their public lives and their private lives as well, so we’ve not shown any effort towards what we’re going to do other than we’re going to hope for a bailout with the state and feds, that’s not sufficient. We have a crisis here. Every single person we’re going to ask for a tax, ‘please give us more money’, has had a crisis and has had to alter their life. That’s our job right now,” said Bublak.
The Mayor also questioned the money that the City would be spending to put the sales tax measure on the ballot. The City has already spent approximately $71,000 on the two polls and Wells estimated the total cost of outreach and education for the ballot measure to be $36,000. The City will be paying an estimated $185,000 for the November election that includes the ballot measure, the City Treasurer position and two Council seats (Districts 2 and 4).