EL CERRITO -- The city will go to the ballot in November asking voters to relieve some of the strain on its finances by approving an extension and doubling of Measure R, the half-cent sales tax passed in 2010.

The initiative, authorized in a unanimous City Council vote July 15, will seek voter approval of a new tax that would raise about $1.4 million annually to bolster a budget of nearly $42 million.

The money would be used to reinstate positions in the police and fire departments that are being left vacant because of budget cuts, as well as add more money for park and building maintenance, as well as recreation programs.

The current measure will expire in 2017. The new measure would double the tax to 1 percent beginning next year and extend it nine more years until 2026.

"The city continues to struggle with the loss of redevelopment and further losses from (downward) property tax reassessments," City Manager Scott Hanin told the council. "Our staffing is down about 15 percent from positions that are being held vacant or eliminated."

El Cerrito already has one of the highest sales tax rates in California at 9.5 percent and is at the state cap of 2 percent in local sales taxes allowed by state law.

It will need a special bill introduced by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, which would allow the city to exceed the cap, to pass the state Legislature and be signed by Gov. Jerry Brown before it could go into effect, Hanin said.


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Hanin is predicting that the city's reserve fund will be about 5.4 percent of its annual budget by the end of the 2014-15 year, a figure the council considers perilously low.

Money from the tax that is not spent on hiring new personnel or providing more services could be used to increase reserves, Hanin said.

Denise Sangster, who said she led the opposition to Measure R in 2010, told the council she thinks bringing new taxpaying businesses to El Cerrito is key to the long-term improvement in the city's finances.

The city's economic development director position is one of the jobs currently vacant.

"The city is dying because there is no economic development (to increase tax base)," Sangster said.

Pension changes

The city also reached a deal with its police and firefighters unions to modify their current contracts to save about $870,000 over the next three years.

Firefighters will receive 17 percent salary increases in return for agreeing to increase their pension contributions from zero to 12 percent of their salaries over the three years.

Police will receive salary hikes of 16.5 percent after agreeing to increase their pension contributions to 12 percent of salary over the same three-year period.

The city currently pays entire pension costs for both groups.

Hanin expressed appreciation for the safety employees' willingness to renegotiate, saying that they were both "within a valid contract and not under any obligation to agree to concessions."

"This is very helpful given the city's current situation," said Councilwoman Rebecca Benassini. "Without these groups coming forward, we could be looking at the potential for (layoffs)."

Wall of Fame

The council also named community activist Tom Panas to its Wall of Fame, which now has 18 individuals and couples as members.

Panas, an expert in local history and historical preservation, has served as president of the El Cerrito Historical Society for four terms and has been active in the ongoing campaign for a new El Cerrito library, among other activities.

Fire hazards

The fire department announced that it had identified 44 properties that still need abatement of hazards after notifying owners of 273 properties about the need to clear weeds, underbrush and other flammable materials.

If the owners don't clear their properties of fire hazards, city crews will do the abatement between Aug. 18 and 29 and charge the property owner for the work, according to fire prevention officer Dave Ciappara.