WALNUT CREEK -- Nonprofit groups and community members from around Walnut Creek came to the City Council Tuesday announcing the resurrection of an old political action group and pleading for city officials to again poll residents on the city's money woes.
In an orchestrated move, residents representing the Lindsay Wildlife Museum, the Walnut Creek Library Foundation, Walnut Creek Open Space and the Walnut Creek Historical Society told the council to plan for future deficits and start a debate on the need for a higher sales tax.
"In order for this idea to move forward and really get the public debate it richly deserves, the City Council needs to allocate funding to survey residents," said Karen Majors, president of the historical society. "If the survey indicates community support ... (you) need to vote to put it on the November ballot."
City staff has for months presented to various local groups a financial roadshow showing expenses outpacing revenues, leading to multimillion-dollar deficits. The overriding message: Walnut Creek cannot continue to provide the services it does without cuts, eating into reserves or increasing fees. In the 2014-15 fiscal year, city projections show a $1.6 million deficit and a $4 million shortfall in the next fiscal year.
When doing the "roadshows," Communications and Outreach Manager Gayle Vassar said city staff never brought up the idea of increasing the sales tax, but that at each gathering, community members did.
The idea of a half-cent sales tax is not new. For months, city council members have batted around the idea in public meetings. And in 2011, a city task force made the recommendation for a half-cent sales tax increase as a way to pay for needed capital maintenance and to deal with raising employee costs. At that time it was estimated that an increase in the sales tax would mean $7 million more in revenue for the city.
"You need a long-term financial plan and a long-term revenue source because you have taken a haircut in the last few years," said James Pezzaglia representing the Lindsay on Tuesday night. "And you are going to run out of cuts."
The three council members in attendance Tuesday night -- Mayor Kristina Lawson and Councilman Justin Wedel were absent -- agreed that an item on paying for another poll should be on the April 8 agenda. This will be the second such survey in less than a year. The first survey cost $20,000. And that phone poll, done last fall, showed only one-third of the 400 surveyed knew that Walnut Creek had any financial problems. But some seem to believe something will be different with a second poll.
"It seems like there has been an increase in people's awareness of the problem," said Mayor Pro Tem Bob Simmons.
City Council members commended the community on coming together.
"We clearly have a fiscal crisis," said Councilwoman Cindy Silva. "We have done everything we can do. We need to get working on the long-term issue."
Before a tax measure could be on the November ballot the City Council would have to vote and both Lawson and Wedel have not been supportive of the idea. While it could be put on the ballot with a four-fifths majority of council members -- necessary for a general tax -- the possibility of one or two prominent city leaders against a tax increase could become a political problem and potentially threaten the passage of such a measure.
It's unclear exactly what revenue from a sales tax would pay for, though some items mentioned include additional hours at the city's two libraries, IT infrastructure and capital projects like the Clarke Swim Centers replacement.
The group also announced the resurrection of "Yes for Walnut Creek" a political action group that was formed in 2009 that worked at getting a measure passed on the ballot allowing the construction of a downtown Neiman Marcus. At the same council meeting, in a 2-1 vote with Simmons dissenting, the council decided to appropriate $5.3 million in "unassigned" general fund balance to five different areas. More than $1.8 million will go to maintaining current capital facilities, nearly $1 million toward needed IT infrastructure projects, $2 million toward stormwater drainage projects, $44,000 to legal reserves and $450,000 for a loan to Boundary Oak Golf Course to pay off 1997 irrigation bonds. According to city leaders, this money had to be used in this way because the City Council adopted a policy in 2012 which mandates the use of "one-time revenues" on certain things. The policy explicitly states these budget surpluses cannot be used to fund ongoing programs or services.
Simmons voted "no" because he felt some of the money should go toward the swim center and implementation of the climate action plan.
Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.