Council to consider sales tax bump

Council to consider sales tax bump

Dave Boitano

Should the city support a half-cent sales tax increase for public safety buildings and equipment while it makes cuts in libraries, recreation and other departments?

That’s the question the Alameda City Council must answer before March 7.

City Manager John Russo on Wednesday night outlined a comprehensive plan to replace aging police cars and fire trucks and remodel an earthquake-damaged fire station with funds from a half-cent sales tax increase voters would consider at a special June election.

The measure, if approved by two-thirds of the voters, would raise about $1.8 million annually over 30 years.

Details of the plan will be revealed next week, but Russo said that over the life of the tax, $24 million would be allocated to replace outdated police and fire equipment along with remodeling Alameda fire station No. 3 and relocating the city’s Emergency Operations Center from the basement of the police station.

The money would also be used to build a training center, which could be shared with other area departments, Russo said.

The tax would also pay $5 million toward a new swim center at an undetermined location, and $3.5 million would be set aside to reopen the old Carnegie Library as a community museum.

Russo’s plan was unveiled after council members learned that they will likely have to cut another $4 million out of the city’s general fund during the upcoming budget year. City staff outlined several options for cutting between 5 and 10 percent out of city departments but did not recommend any of them.

Some of the reductions included not replacing some police jobs that are now vacant and, under one scenario, responding to only the most pressing emergency police calls.

Russo said a comprehensive plan to replace public safety equipment and facilities would free up money that must be taken out of the general fund when the cars and buildings deteriorate past the point of being repaired. He thinks the public will see the logic of the plan.

“I am confident that the Alameda public can understand this,’’ he said.

Police Chief Michael Noonan said the department has 15 patrol vehicles that need to be replaced, and admitted that the cars are “an aging fleet.” Fire Chief Michael D’Orazi said the city’s equipment fund does not have enough to replace fire trucks at the recommended 10-year interval and that Alameda Fire operates three trucks that are more than 20 years old. Parts for the older vehicle are hard to obtain, he added.

Much of the debate centered on the public’s willingness to approve a sales tax boost.

Despite the cost of holding a special election, the tax would be put before voters in June, avoiding a November vote when the public will likely be overwhelmed by state tax measures designed to plug other budget gaps, Russo and others said.

A poll of 400 voters by EMC Research showed that respondents could vote for a general tax measure but that specific taxes for road repairs would not garner the necessary two-thirds majority. Those polled did not consider street repair and replacement a high priority, said Alex Evans of EMC.

Maintaining neighborhood crime patrols was a high priority and would pass with the two-thirds majority, along with maintaining safe and clean parks, Evans said.

Councilwoman Beverly Johnson was unconvinced that a plan for public safety facilities and equipment would get enough voter support given that survey respondents didn’t support infrastructure proposals like road repairs in large enough numbers.

``This does not seem to be the same as keeping police on patrol,” Johnson said.

Russo insisted that both issues are linked.

“You can’t have a fire service if you have fire engines that don’t work,” he said. “Time’s up … this stuff is getting old and you have to fix it.”

The council must approve the ballot measure at their March 7 meeting to qualify the item for the June ballot, officials said.