SAN JOSE -- After months of analysis and armed with a poll they say shows the public is behind the idea, city officials are recommending that a quarter-cent sales tax be put before voters in November.

City officials say the quarter-cent tax would raise $34 million a year over its recommended nine-year life span. But they must decide whether to seek voter approval for a general tax measure, which would pass with a simple majority vote and may be spent on any city needs, or one earmarked for bolstering the city's depleted police and fire departments, which would require two-thirds approval. The City Council must decide at its Tuesday meeting, the last before an Aug. 8 deadline to place measures on November's ballot. Four other possible measures also are under consideration.

Mayor Chuck Reed said he prefers a tax dedicated to public safety, arguing that it could be used to bolster police salaries. Reed said the city needs an additional $21 million to meet its goal of upping the number of officers to 1,250 from about 1,000 today.

The decision has quickly emerged as an issue in the mayoral race. Councilman Sam Liccardo, whom Reed has endorsed as his successor, has joined him and Council members Pete Constant and Rose Herrera in calling for a special public-safety tax.

"If taxpayers are willing to pay for more police services, they should get more police services," Liccardo said, adding that he opposes a new tax for general use. "What we don't want to see is pet projects that have no impact on public safety. And we don't want to see a future council roll back pension reform and see our tax dollars going into the huge black hole of pension debt."


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But Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese, Liccardo's mayoral rival, favors a general tax, though he also would support a special tax.

"People are interested in public safety, but there are a half dozen other issues," he said. "People are tired of seeing weeds coming up out of the asphalt. People are interested in making sure that essential services are delivered."

Jim Unland, president of San Jose's police officer union, which is backing Cortese for mayor, blamed the city's 2012 pension reform Measure B -- which Reed and Liccardo supported and voters approved by nearly 70 percent -- for the depleted police force. He dismissed as "band-aid approaches" the proposed tax, as well as another proposed November measure that would ease parts of Measure B. The proposed measure would let former employees who quit their jobs come back under their old benefit plan, making it easier for police and firefighters to get a disability retirement.

"Until they fix the core issues with Measure B, they're not going to get more officers," Unland said.

Cortese agreed with Unland that the problem with increasing the number of officers isn't money, citing the unfilled positions on the force.

The city's most recent polling showed that while a special public safety tax enjoys greater support than a general tax, the latter doesn't have nearly as good a chance of passage: 67 percent supported the general tax, while 71 percent were for the targeted tax. That translates to the general tax winning by a 17 percentage point margin -- 4 points for the public safety tax.

But the pollster said that those numbers include replies that were "leaning yes." If those voters are taken out of the equation, support drops to 57 percent for the general tax and 65 percent for the specific, below the two-thirds threshold.

Reed, however, said he thinks the specific tax would be a better bet.

"Even though it has a higher threshold, the chances of someone spending money to oppose it is a lot less than a general tax," he said.

Jim Reed of the Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce said the group has not yet taken an official stance on a tax hike, but they have been in conversations with various concerned business owners.

"We've heard from a number of them that the public safety problem is very real," he said. "Everyone agrees with that. But the question is: What do you do about it? It's never a good thing to take money out of the economy in taxes, but it's also never good to have public safety and infrastructure problems. These are tough choices."

Other initiatives the City Council will consider placing on the ballot include:

  • Doubling the business tax fee on medical marijuana dispensaries from 10 percent to 20 percent of gross sales.

  • Amending the city charter to include a board-appointed chief executive position for the city's retirement plans, currently overseen by a city manager appointee.

  • Requiring that bargaining negotiations between city staff and unions be open to the public.

    Each initiative comes with an estimated price tag of nearly $430,000, according to the City Clerk's Office. The city has budgeted enough election money to put three or four on the ballot, if desired.

    Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi.