Voters facing higher taxes or stingier services

May 18, 2018

Butte Courthouse
Credit Bruce Damonte


From schools and potholes to deputies, libraries and ambulance service, voters in a dozen North State jurisdictions will determine the fate of local tax measures, in less than three weeks. With generally frugal local voters counties and cities may have a tough time making their case….North State Public Radio’s Marc Albert has our story. 


They’ll be voting on a weed tax in Weed, a pothole tax in part of Clear Lake Oaks, school bonds in Plumas Lake and Grass Valley, a school parcel tax in Redding, paramedics in Sierra County, firefighters in Shasta Lake and a library tax in Susanville to name a few. 


While Sacramento lawmakers weigh new initiatives against a stronger rainy-day or reserve fund, many cities and counties are in a financial vise.  


 “Jurisdictions are struggling with rising retirement costs and to meet those costs as well as to maintain services they have to do a combination of curtailing some of the benefits that can legally be renegotiated, and raising revenue,” said Stephen Levy, Director and Senior Economist at the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy. “So that’s no different in Shasta than it is in Palo Alto where I live.” 


In the Bay Area, Levy said, cities can partly shield residents by bumping up hotel taxes---they’re generally paid by tourists, not locals---but without major attractions or huge employers, North State jurisdictions must look elsewhere.  


Much of the squeeze is due to changes in California’s Public Employee Retirement System or CalPERS. Among the changes, local governments are being asked to pay more. Meanwhile, other costs are rising while large pockets of the region continue to struggle in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse. 


“We’ve had a lot of foreclosures over the last few years, so our property tax roll, which is basically, which funds (the) General Fund, has reduced in value so we’re not receiving the same level of revenue from that, and then our only other option would be to go out for a sales tax,” said Nancy Cardinas, Lassen County Treasurer/Tax Collector. 



Cardinas is among those with the unenviable task of convincing Lassen County voters to raise the sales tax rate by three-quarters of a percent. A $24-$52 parcel tax increase is also on the ballot in Susanville, the county seat.  


“People aren’t happy with it,” she added. “They believe that there’s wasteful spending at both the state level and the local level and they pay enough taxes and they believe we should make do with what we have, and once you start explaining that how what we have has been depleting and really the only way we have to raise revenue is through taxes, some people are coming around to the idea of a sales tax.” 


She said failure would mean older equipment and longer response times for deputies and firefighters. Cardinas said Lassen’s main employers, two state prisons, a federal prison, the Sierra Army Depot, a college and non-profit hospital are all exempt from property tax. Income taxes meanwhile go to Washington and Sacramento. 


Susan Shelley, vice president for Communications at the Howard Jarvis Tax Association, an anti-tax group, said those calling for more funding are seldom honest. 


“No one in government ever goes to the voters and says, what we need from you, retirees on a fixed income, what we need from you, voters who are struggling to put your own kids through school and to pay your bills, what we need from you is a higher tax for government retiree pensions and government retiree benefits. They never do that.” 


While that may be true, Paul smith, Vice President of Governmental Affairs for Rural County Representatives of California, a lobbying group representing California’s sparsely populated counties, says rising costs and stagnant revenue are making it harder to square budgets.   


“Meanwhile the costs to provide those services continue to rise, and that’s where some counties get caught in the middle where they just cannot afford those increases because their sales tax base isn’t growing or their property tax base isn’t growing fast enough, Smith said.” 


While taxes are noticeably higher in urban areas of California—differences in economic activity are creating something of a tale of two states.  


“Santa Clara, San Francisco, property tax is extremely strong because of very, very healthy property market,” Smith said. You’re not going to see those rates of growth in house prices and real property prices in Modoc County or in Lassen County and many others, it’s just a phenomenon of, of the way the state’s laid out.” 


Smith said the number of tax measures on the June 5th ballot isn’t unusual. Whether the region’s generally negative outlook on taxes has moderated at all, won’t be known before the sixth.