RICHMOND VOTERS will be asked on June 7 to permanently increase their sales tax another half cent by passing a pair of unusual ballot measures designed to circumvent a state constitutional requirement of two-thirds approval.
Measure D would increase Richmond's sales tax to 10.25 cents on each dollar spent. Sales taxes are regressive, forcing those who can least afford them to spend a greater portion of their incomes. In this case, the sales tax would be increased to unacceptable levels.
Richmond, with the East Bay's second-highest city unemployment rate (only San Pablo is worse), would pay the top sales tax rate. In the East Bay, only Union City and El Cerrito charge as much. The sales tax in most Contra Costa cities is 9.25 percent, and in Alameda County it's usually 9.75 percent. Across the Bay, San Francisco charges 9.5 percent.
The Richmond measure also contains no sunset provision. In November, five East Bay cities asked voters to approve sales tax increases. They all contained time limits, ranging from four to eight years. Four passed. In contrast, Richmond officials, while saying they need more money to get through the current "fiscal emergency," have set no expiration date for Measure D. This tax increase would never go away.
The sales tax increase would generate about $5.5 million to $6 million annually. Where would it go? That's where Measure C comes in. If approved, it would advise -- but not require -- the city to spend half the money restoring programs for the poor that were cut due to state take-aways, and half on school district programs in Richmond.
It would have been simpler to wrap the two measures into one and require that the money be spent as voters wish. But a tax mandated for specific purposes is a "special tax," requiring two-thirds voter approval. By keeping Measure D as a "general tax," with no requirement for how it's spent, backers need only majority approval.
With Measure C, the council creates the illusion that the tax money will be restricted to essential services, not salary and pension increases. But saving money in one part of a budget frees up funds elsewhere. And because Measure C is only advisory, the City Council is really free to spend the money however it wants.
The city should find a way to work with the money it already has. We know property tax revenues are slipping. But the city and Chevron last year settled two tax disputes, with the oil refiner agreeing to pay an additional $114 million over the next 15 years.
We're much more sympathetic to the fiscal plight of the school district, which is victimized by the state budget stalemate. However, there is no way to ensure that school money raised through the Richmond sales tax would benefit that city's children. The West Contra Costa Unified School District serves 30,000 students from Richmond to Hercules. Richmond students often attend schools outside the city limits, and students from outside Richmond often attend schools in the city.
Normally, the school system would ask voters to approve a districtwide parcel tax. But that would require two-thirds approval, which the district tried unsuccessfully to obtain in November. District voters are taxed-out, already paying for two other district parcel taxes to fund school operations as well as bond payments to finance one of the state's largest school construction programs.
The district has gone to the well too many times. Using the city for cover doesn't hide that Measure D would permanently increase school taxes again. This is the wrong way to fund education. We recommend a no vote.