EL CERRITO -- City Council members received a sanguine picture this week from a poll taken about the city's chances to extend or increase a sales tax passed in 2010 to prevent drastic cuts to vital city services during the recession.
Despite a comeback in certain sectors of the economy, City Manager Scott Hanin told council members at the March 4 meeting that the city is still leaving about 10 percent of its staff positions unfilled and that departmental budgets remain tight.
The city budget continues to be weighed down by losses to sales tax revenue from the closure of key businesses, loss of redevelopment and decreases in assessed valuation of properties, according to a city staff report.
Measure R provides a half-cent per dollar of sales revenue to bolster city services. It is described on the city website as a seven-year, temporary tax scheduled to end on May 30, 2018.
A possible half-cent increase, to be placed on the November ballot, could help restore recent cuts to the landscaping and maintenance budget and bolster police and fire services, parks and recreation, and other key services, according to the staff report.
The poll, from San Mateo-based Godbe Research, reported that 73.2 percent of likely November voters, before any campaigning, would definitely or probably support a 12-year extension and a half-cent increase to the tax with a simple majority vote needed to pass. Support for the extension alone was 80.1 percent.
Measure R is a general tax, meaning it can only be placed on the ballot in a general election when council members are up for election.
The El Cerrito sales tax rate is 9.5 percent, among the highest in the state, according to state Board of Equalization statistics. In addition to the Measure R tax, city residents pay a half-cent tax that goes to road repair.
The results came from a telephone survey of 400 residents taken during the first week of February.
"All the (potential) uses of the money got positive support in the poll," Bryan Godbe of Godbe Research told the council. "Cities that get 62 percent support are very happy, and you are way above that."
Councilwoman Jan Bridges said the poll shows that "residents clearly understand the (budget) situation."
Although the current tax has four years to run, Godbe recommended putting a measure on the ballot this year in order to save space on the November 2016 general election ballot for a bond measure to pay for construction of a new library.
The library bond would require a two-thirds supermajority to pass.
"This would be an easier sell than the library," Godbe said. "Waiting until November 2016, a high-turnout presidential election, would be the best way to tackle the library measure."
The council received other good news from the poll, which showed that 85 percent of residents surveyed have a "somewhat favorable" or "very favorable" opinion of the job the city is doing to provide services, while 66.4 percent have a favorable opinion of how the city is managing its budget.
The council voted unanimously to ask the city staff to prepare to place a measure on the November 2014 ballot with a recommendation about the length of an extension and whether to seek an increase in the tax rate.
To boost the tax rate, El Cerrito would have to receive an exception to the state's 2 percent cap on use taxes for local agencies with overlapping boundaries, which would only be available through special legislation.
The council asked Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Oakland) for such legislation in February.
"If the legislation doesn't pass, we won't have the ability to get over the cap," said assistant City Manager Karen Pinkos.
New bicycle rules
In other business, the council also approved changes to bike rules approved in November as recommended by Police Chief Sylvia Moir.
The changes prohibit riding on sidewalks in the city with the exception of police officers carrying out their duties. Juveniles under 18 may ride on sidewalks, except in front of stores and other businesses.
The rules also prohibit "acrobatic or stunt riding" that creates "a dangerous situation" for pedestrians or motorists, except in places on city property such as skateboard parks, bike parks and mountain biking trails.