RICHMOND -- Richmond voters will likely decide whether to approve a half-cent sales tax hike in November, as the City Council on Tuesday directed staff to craft a ballot measure aimed at generating funds to repair the city's craggy streets.

The council, by a 5-1-1 vote, paved the way for the November sales-tax measure along with an informational campaign to explain the measure to voters.

"We need to organize and put together a plan in terms of how we can legally educate the public and strategize and get individual businesses and others to financially support some campaign," Councilman Nat Bates said.

Potholes and cracked asphalt mar the surface of Harbour Way near Barrett Avenue in Richmond, Calif. on Thursday, September 18, 2008.  A regional assessment
Potholes and cracked asphalt mar the surface of Harbour Way near Barrett Avenue in Richmond, Calif. on Thursday, September 18, 2008. A regional assessment of roads put Richmond near the bottom of the list. (Kristopher Skinner/ Contra Costa Newspapers)

A half-cent sales tax hike, which would raise the total sales tax rate in the city from 9 percent to 9.5 percent, could generate about $7 million per year, according to a city staff report. With that funding, the city could secure a $90 million bond and spend $30 million per year over three years on an ambitious project to fix hundreds of miles of city streets.

But voters will have to trust the council to use the money as intended because the ballot measure will be for a general tax and not require that the funds be used on streets, a gamble the council is willing to take to avoid the two-thirds vote requirement for taxes that are required for a specific purpose, per state law.


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As for the city's informational campaign to spread word about the tax, it can only be information and analysis, not advocacy, City Attorney Bruce Goodmiller said.

"It's a real bright line," Goodmiller said.

Mayor Gayle McLaughlin abstained, and Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles voted no. McLaughlin said she supported the tax but said she believed Bates' motion went beyond Tuesday's agenda; the item merely directed staff to prepare the language and the plan but did not call for an expression of direct support.

The ballot language will come back before the council for approval June 17.

Without millions in new sales tax funds to support bonds for road repair, city streets are destined for continued decline, according to a staff report.

At 9.5 percent, Richmond's sales tax would be tied with Moraga and El Cerrito for the county's highest, according to the state Board of Equalization. Other cities in the county are at 8.5 percent or 9 percent.

The tax could face a tough electoral environment, as West Contra Costa County voters recently rejected a parcel tax to save Doctors Medical Center and will weigh in on more tax measures to support local schools and community colleges in June.

The council commissioned a study on the sales tax by a private firm that released a report in January concluding that residents would support a sales tax hike, which is less perceptible to local taxpayers and also generates revenues from shoppers passing through the city.

"I am not supporting no taxes on the homeowners of the city of Richmond because there is enough of that right now, the taxes are huge," Councilman Corky Boozé said, adding that he supports a sales tax hike. "But when you drive from Richmond into El Cerrito, you're suddenly riding on smooth streets."

Richmond long has had a reputation for having some of the Bay Area's most rugged streets, and city studies suggest the problem is getting worse. Public works officials say that at least 30 neighborhoods are marred by failed, unsafe streets, and about 32 percent of roads overall are in "poor" or "failed" condition.

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/sfbaynewsrogers.