SAN LEANDRO -- Voters in two weeks will get to decide if they want to pay one of the highest sales taxes in the state in an effort to reduce their city's severe budget crunch.
Measure Z, which was placed on the ballot by the City Council in summer, would raise the sales tax in San Leandro by a quarter percent. If approved by the voters, the measure would put the sales tax in the city at 10 percent, which could be one of the highest marks in the state -- pending the outcome of other such measures around the state Nov. 2.
In essence, the measure would cost those shopping in the city an extra quarter for every $100 they spend.
The measure, which needs a simple majority to pass, would go into effect immediately after the election results were official and the measure adopted by the City Council, likely in early December.
The city has been running budget deficits that have resulted in staff reductions and service cuts, so officials hope the quarter-percent increase will add an estimated $4 million a year to its general fund annually for the next seven years, when the increase is set to expire.
This year alone, the city had cut $6.9 million in services, and over the last two years, the city has cut staff by almost 20 percent -- down 95 full-time positions. The city says another $3 million in cuts will have to be made this fiscal year if the measure is not passed.
Supporters of the measure say the increase is necessary to avoid drastic cuts to city services, which would include cutting seven police officers, losing a fire truck and nine firefighters and increasing 911 response times by 184 percent, to about six minutes -- above the five-minute response safety standard.
It also would cause the city to close some of its smaller library branches and eliminate most youth and senior recreation programs.
"We need that tax increase in November," Mayor Tony Santos said at an election forum last month. "All eight (city) departments have been cut -- some by as much as 20 percent. We've cut $5 or $6 million a year from our budget."
However, opponents of the measure say it will hurt local businesses by driving consumers to other cities where the sales tax is lower. They also say the city must get its spending under control and not continue shortsighted planning, such as building a $15 million senior center that the city cannot afford to open.
Councilman Bill Stephens, who helped draft the ballot argument against Measure Z, said the city must first ease its own spending -- likely by looking at employee pension plans -- before going to its residents and asking for more money.
"There are no guarantees this new revenue would even solve our budget problems," Stephens said.
He added that nearly everyone is going through economic crises right now, and it is up to the city to enact some internal controls to curb its spending.
Measure Z, San Leandro Temporary Emergency Funding
The ballot question: To protect and maintain local services, such as fire and 9-1-1 emergency response times, neighborhood police patrols, investigation and gang suppression officers, library hours/programs, street and pothole repairs, youth after-school and senior programs, and other general City services, shall the City of San Leandro enact a quarter-cent sales tax, for seven years, reviewed by a citizens' oversight committee, annual independent audits, and all funds for San Leandro and no funds for Sacramento?