SALES TAX INCREASE HEADED TO JUNE BALLOT

SALES TAX INCREASE HEADED TO JUNE BALLOT

Dave Boitano

Voters will go to the polls in June to decide the fate of a half-cent sales tax measure approved by the City Council on Wednesday night.

After several hours of discussion, the council unanimously approved the ballot language of the proposal, which would raise $54 million over 30 years for a variety of projects including rebuilding a fire station, building a new swimming pool and replacing the city’s aging fleet of police cars and fire engines. Council members added a planned but never built second elevator for the Main Library to the list of projects to be funded by the proposed tax increase and a lighted, all-weather field, which some youth sports leaders had hoped to get in a land swap deal nixed by the council Tuesday night.

A council subcommittee will now draft a ballot argument in favor of the tax, which must be approved by a two-thirds majority of voters, and submit the entire ballot package to the Alameda County Registrar of Voters by the Friday deadline.

City officials created the measure to raise funds for facilities and equipment that they said have been neglected due to tight budgeting. The money would not be used to cover an anticipated $4.4 million deficit in next year's general fund budget, though City Manager John Russo said that absent the tax, money would be drawn from there if a public safety vehicle suddenly breaks down and needs to be replaced. Russo has argued that such budgeting on the fly takes money from the general fund that could be used for other city programs.

The tax would pay for a number of capital projects Russo and city staff said are vital to the city’s safety and quality of life. They include:

*Reconstruction of Fire Station 3 on Grand Avenue, which was essentially condemned because it is not earthquake resistant. Alameda’s existing Emergency Operations Center would be moved there from the basement of the police station and modernized.

*A 50-meter swimming pool with locker rooms and showers to be built at a central location with the aid of $5 million from the tax. Russo said the pool, local swimmers would raise funds for and operate, is needed to replacing the aging Emma Hood Swim Center at Alameda High School.

Upgrades to the old Carnegie Library building across the street from City Hall, which would be turned into a museum. Though the conversion would be paid for by the city, the museum would be operated by a nonprofit group, an arrangement now in place at the city’s animal shelter.

A new, all-weather, lighted athletic field which was not part of the original proposal but was added by the council Wednesday night. A portion of the field's $1.9 million cost could be paid from a grant from the National Football League because the Oakland Raiders have their headquarters in Alameda, a proponent of adding the field to the project list said.

Addition of a second elevator at the Main Library. The extra elevator is needed because the current one has been unreliable and library staff needs to transport books to the building’s second floor, Library Director Jane Chisaki said.

Another key component of the measure is the ongoing replacement of the city’s aging fleet of police cars and fire engines, some of which are more than 20 years old, Alameda's public safety leaders said. The measure will raise approximately $1.8 million per year, of which $1 million will go toward retiring bond debt on the capital projects, leaving $800,000 for replacing public safety equipment.

A series of speakers representing the community groups that would benefit from the tax praised the plan.

City Auditor Kevin Kearney, a self-professed skeptic, also supported the tax because it would spell out how the tax money was to be used and provide a funding plan for years to come. That has not always been the case in the city, he said.

“There has never been this much forward thinking,” he added.

Opponents included a local merchant who feared the higher tax might drive consumers to Internet-based retailers and a resident, Donna Eyestone. Eyestone said she does not mind paying more taxes but said the tax would adversely affect low-income residents.

“I feel it is wrong to do it in this way,” she said.

Russo said that while the tax is regressive in principle, it would not apply to items such as food, housing and medical care, which he said are major expenses for those living on limited incomes.