BERKELEY -- There were a half-dozen taxes the City Council would have liked voters to consider in November -- levies on commercial and rental vacancies, a sugar-sweetened beverage tax, increased rental housing and parks taxes.

But most council members agreed at their April 1 meeting that they didn't want a lengthy ballot.

So after considering the results of the Lake Research Partners poll in March of 503 likely voters, they winnowed consideration of ballot measures down to three: taxes on sweetened soft drinks and vacant commercial property, and a bond and tax measure for parks.

Lake Research Partners will home in on these measures in a follow-up poll this month to help the council decide which measures to place on the ballot and the parameters of each.

The total cost of the two surveys is about $52,000.

David Mermin of Lake Research Partners discussed the poll at the meeting, noting that a sugar-sweetened beverage tax was the measure "most strongly positioned for passage."

The poll found that 66 percent of those surveyed were likely to vote for a 1-cent-per-ounce tax charged to sugar-sweetened beverage distributors where proceeds go into the city's general fund. And 64 percent would approve a tax with funds dedicated to specific programs such as diabetes prevention.

California law requires a 50 percent plus one vote to pass a general tax and a two-thirds vote where expenditures are specified.

A specific 2-cent-per-ounce tax polled at less than two-thirds approval.


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Mermin noted that even after the poll presented arguments against the tax, only a few support points were lost.

"That's a good indicator that they're solid and very difficult to shake, which is important given that there may be a lot of money spent against them," Mermin said.

The April poll will help determine whether the ballot measure should propose a specific or general sugar-sweetened beverage tax and the impact of various arguments opposing the measure.

Other taxes polled less favorably.

Although a parks bond and operating tax proposal didn't get close to the two-thirds it would need, council members wanted it on the ballot.

"We have to stop the deterioration of our parks," said Mayor Tom Bates. "That's my No. 1 priority."

The poll concluded 49 percent of the voters would approve a $40 million parks bond with a $2 million operating tax costing the owners of a 1,900-square-foot home $118 per year.

The approval rate grew to 52 percent for a $25 million bond with a $2 million operating budget, costing the same homeowner $91 per year.

Parks advocate Rob Collier asked the council to consider a $25 million bond with a $1 million operating budget and Councilman Gordon Wozniak asked that polling look at a $15 million bond.

"We need a really stripped down version," Wozniak said. "I don't think the electorate is in the mood for a wish list."

The April poll will help determine how much taxes citizens will be willing to pay for parks.

The council also asked for more polling data on a commercial vacancy tax, which polled at 54 percent approval, but would need two-thirds.

The tax would charge owners $1 per square foot of ground floor commercial space vacant for two years, with escalating assessments for subsequent years of vacancy.

Councilwoman Susan Wengraf was the lone voice opposing further polling on the question.

"I feel like those property owners who have vacant store fronts have deep enough pockets so that whatever tax we approve won't make any difference," she said.

But Councilman Jesse Arreguin argued that ground floor vacancies in commercial districts create blight. "Why shouldn't we study that if it's such a big issue?" he asked.

One measure the council decided not to explore with further polling data is an increase in business license taxes to support affordable housing.

The tax would impact rental properties more than 20 years old, and include small landlord exemptions.

The poll showed a 57 percent approval rate, less than the two-thirds needed.

Property owners spoke against the measure, saying it would hurt rental affordability.

However, a citizens' group calling itself the Robin Hood Committee for a Windfall Profits Tax is using the initiative process to place the measure on the November ballot.

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