California's perplexing rules for raising local government taxes often place voters in a dilemma, forcing them to choose between withholding approval for needed taxes and trusting unknown future politicians to spend the money wisely.
Hayward's Measure C, a half-cent sales tax increase on the June 3 ballot, provides an example. While we recommend approval, we can only hope future City Council members fulfill the promises to voters.
We fear they won't, but further starving Hayward's already anemic city coffers while the current City Council has worked hard to balance the books would send the wrong message. We wish there were a realistic way to restrict use of the tax increase. Unfortunately, California voters have made that nearly impossible.
A series of statewide ballot measures, starting with Proposition 13, the 1978 property tax-cutting initiative, created illogical vote thresholds: City "special" taxes, which can only be used for a specified purpose, require two-thirds approval. But "general" taxes, without use restrictions, need only a simple majority for passage.
Common sense tells us it should be the other way around, that raising taxes without use restrictions should carry the tougher standard. But that's not the law. So, with Measure C, Hayward officials have opted for the more-achievable lower vote target but consequently cannot lock in how the money would be used.
The measure would raise the sales tax in Hayward from 9 cents to 9.5 cents on every dollar of taxable goods. The 20-year increase would raise an estimated $10 million annually to start.
The city has a nonbinding list of staff increases and needed capital projects on which to spend the money: A new library, fire station retrofits and improvements, a new fire station training center, needed street repairs, more cops on the street and restoration of five city maintenance workers.
But city officials have a parallel problem: None of those items are included in Hayward's 10-year budget forecast, which shows annual structural deficits rising from $2.5 million this year to $23 million in 10 years. Without change, the city will go broke in four years.
The council last month finally included in the forecast full annual payments on Hayward's $68.5 million unfunded liability for workers' retiree health care. Otherwise that debt would continue to grow.
We fear a bait and switch, that new sales tax money will be shifted from promised projects and staffing increases to closing the general fund budget gap, or that those retiree health care debt payments will be abandoned.
We hope current and future council members respect the political promises. We wish Measure C bound them to do so.