A group of dedicated residents says a sales tax increase in Walnut Creek is the key to solving the city's budget woes.
But will such a measure ever make it to the November ballot?
Some residents ¿as well as leaders of local nonprofit organizations in Walnut Creek hope the answer is yes. They see a sales tax hike as a fix to what they call a structural deficit that could force multimillion-dollar services cuts.
"We are not saying people should vote for (a sales tax increase). We are saying with such an important issue, more important than plastic bags and cigarette butts ... people should be able to weigh in whether this is the right solution," said Bob Brittain, treasurer for Yes for Walnut Creek, a political group.
These groups and residents are wrestling with a lack of political support from some elected leaders and the reality that tax measures in Walnut Creek historically don't fare too well with voters.
Since 1990 only one out of four bond or tax measures has passed in Walnut Creek. The success was a 2002 parcel tax called Measure Q to pay for more hours at the city's library.
The others -- a 2005 bond measure to fund construction of the library, a 1996 increase in the hotel tax and a 1990 bond to purchase open space -- all failed.
A measure to increase the city's sales tax has never been tried in Walnut Creek.
Ultimately, if passed, a half-cent sales tax would put the city's tax rate at 9 percent -- the same as Antioch, Concord, Orinda and Moraga. It would likely boost the city's $19 million a year in sales tax revenue by $7 million.
The money would go into the city's general fund and could be used for a myriad of things, such as road maintenance, renovations at the city's swim center and additional library hours that are set to expire next year.
Only a majority of votes from the electorate is needed to increase the sales tax, but a supermajority of the City Council -- four of five members -- must vote in favor of putting the item on the ballot. That outcome looks highly unlikely with Mayor Kristina Lawson and Councilman Justin Wedel strongly opposed.
"I truly believe we owe it to the community to stop this charade," Wedel said Tuesday. "Reading the tea leaves, I don't think there are four votes on this council to move forward" with a sales tax.
But resident and groups, including local nonprofits, are not deterred. They successfully petitioned a majority of the City Council to conduct a survey of voters they believe will show support for a tax increase. Poll results are expected back in May.
Brittain believes once voters learn of the city's financial problems, they won't want to lose city services.
"What it will show is that a sales tax measure could pass," he said.
Lawson argued the revenue from a sales tax increase is not necessary to fix the city's budget gap. She challenged those supporters to make it happen on their own.
"A majority of the council has been focused on increasing revenues in this town via the most regressive tax mechanism possible," Lawson said Tuesday. "If there is so much community support, why then have those in the audience and the members of the public not submit to us a petition that would require us to submit a ballot to the voters -- the people can weigh in any time via a petition."
And that may be exactly what happens. Brittain said Yes for Walnut Creek members are discussing using the initiative process. A petition would be circulated with more than 4,000 signatures of registered voters needed to force such a ballot measure.
"It would take a serious grass roots initiative and we would need to have some feet on the ground," Brittain said.
Another potential hurdle for supporters is timing. The deadline for placing a measure on the ballot is Aug. 8, only four months away. And time is of the essence for Walnut Creek, according to Alex Evans, EMC Research president who is conducting the city's surveys.
"The city will need time to develop the measure and ordinance while allowing ample time for public comment," Evans said in a letter.
Some on the council already seem convinced that a sales tax is necessary.
"We are a regional city, meaning that we have lots of facilities here that other people come and use," said Councilwoman Loella Haskew on Tuesday. "The sales tax does give the opportunity for those that don't pay for city services an opportunity to actually contribute into the pot."
Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.