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Merced County floats sales tax plan while region remains in first wave of deadly pandemic

Special meeting coming soon to consider ballot measure

STORY UPDATE: The Special Meeting of the Merced County Board of Supervisors will be held on TUESDAY, AUG. 4, AT 10 A.M., in the board chambers located at 2222 M Street, third floor, in Downtown Merced. Leaders are expected to discuss and vote on a proposal to place a General Sales Tax Measure — a 1/2 cent sales tax for a period of 15 years — on the Nov. 3 Election ballot for voter approval. Because of COVID-19 guidelines, there is limited public seating at the meeting, though some overflow space is available.

WRITTEN COMMENTS: Members of the public may submit written comments to the Board Of Supervisors as follows: by email to: [email protected], by mail or hand delivery at the Clerk of the Board’s Office at the above address. Comments should be submitted no later than 5 p.m. on Monday. Provide the board meeting date and “General Sales Tax Measure” topic at the top of your letter, and then your comments.

 

 

The first half of Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting was dominated by Public Health reports concerning the latest increase in numbers of the region’s COVID-19 virus spread and efforts to curb the pandemic.

However, late into the second half of the meeting, leaders were presented with another related matter — a proposed financial treatment to budgetary ailments — that’s sure to grab the attention of residents who presumably are already weary of the ever-constant gloom and doom of death tolls, case counts, mask-wearing and business and school closures.

In a staff report, County CEO James Brown presented the board with a proposal to place a 15-year, 1/2 cent, general sales tax measure on the November ballot for voter approval. Such a measure would generate approximately $17 million in additional annual revenue for the county, or $255 million over its term.

Brown said the current economic downturn has impacted Merced County’s budget and ability to provide essential programs and services that ensure the health and safety of communities during the recovery ahead.

In a 4-0 vote, with Board Chair Rodrigo Espinoza absent from the meeting, leaders decided to call a special meeting in the days to come for a full discussion on the matter and a possible vote. Brown said his staff will be looking at Monday, Aug. 3, for the hearing, but it’s yet to be determined. Ballot measures must be submitted to the Registrar of Voters by an Aug. 7 deadline to be included in the November General Election.

“Prior to COVID, the board expressed priorities in long-term areas including emergency and safety services, community services and economic development — otherwise quality of life issues,” Brown explained. “Funding these priorities, along with maintaining vital county services, and COVID recovery, will be extremely challenging without securing additional revenue sources.”

The top administrator appeared to suggest the timing of a ballot measure is not exactly ideal in these pandemic times.

“This is something that has been in the works for awhile,” he said. “We know the time … at this point … you know COVID is not good … Again, this is just one of the possibilities. The board has asked us to look at options on how we look at some of those long-term needs.”

Brown said the county, along with a consultant, have conducted public opinion research in the summer of 2019, and again this past June. He said the results showed that the top community concerns include: maintaining fire services, 911 response, Sheriff’s Department response times, preventing violent crime and gang activity, keeping public spaces safe and clean, spending local funds only in the county, and addressing homelessness.

The county research shows 75 percent of residents polled recognized the need for additional local funding. It addition, a majority of responses supported a 1/2 cent sales tax measure in all of the county’s representative districts.

Supervisors Daron McDaniel and Lloyd Pareira acknowledged the county’s many needs but expressed reservations about a tax measure.

Rather than a general sales tax, McDaniel said he would prefer a more defined measure — such as the voter-approved Measure V that supports regional road improvement.

“This sales tax is only as good as every two years and who is sitting in these seats,” he said referring to leadership changes due to elections, and decisions on how money is spent.

Supervisor Pareira said he would feel more comfortable with a quarter, or a third of a percent, sales tax. He pointed out that the downtown county jail needs to be replaced.

Supervisor Scott Silveira, who represent the West Side area or District 5, was the only leader on Tuesday who voiced strong support for the need for a sales tax. He argued that a sales tax would have the least impact on the economic well-being of residents, and visitors to the county would also be supporting the measure when they stop in the county to buy goods and services. He also pointed out that the voters would ultimately decide if they want the tax or not.

Still, Silveira admitted the optics of a tax measure during so much local suffering at so many levels was not the best of things.

“Obviously, the timing is just horrible,” he said. “I want folks to understand that this isn’t something that we just magically came up with because coronavirus happened. … This just adds to problems that have already been identified.”

Supervisor Lee Lor, who is running for re-election in November, did not say whether or not she would support putting a tax measure on the ballot, but she stressed the need for another hearing to fully inform residents of the details of the proposed measure and what its potential revenue will be used for. She emphasized the need for transparency, and full disclosure about the surveys that were conducted and current board priorities.

If the board votes to place a “general” sales tax measure on the November ballot, it would need a simple majority — 50 percent plus 1 — to pass. The resulting ordinance would become effective April 1, 2021.

CEO Brown assured leaders that the funds generated would be locally controlled, spent under local guidelines, audited annually, and be subject to citizens’ oversight.

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