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City discusses new proposed tax

The biggest question about a potential new city tax that was discussed during a special meeting of the City Council Wednesday was why the notice of the discussion was so short — a mere two days, with one of those days being June 7, Election Day. The possibility of the tax hasn’t been a mystery.

The city and the county have had discussions over whether a combined “public safety” tax could be levied this fall.

The mutual discussions ended when it was found the county’s needs would be somewhat greater than the city’s, said City Administrator David Tooley at the Wednesday night meeting. And it’s also fairly well known that the county ran into plenty of opposition against any new taxation.

According to consultants hired by the city to look into the possible new tax, the situation appears to be just the opposite in the city. There seems to be support for the new tax, said Charles Heath of TBWB Strategies, which specializes in designing “ballot issues which generate revenue for municipalities.”

Tim McLarney, also of the consulting firm, said getting a tax measure passed involves five steps: A feasibility study, efforts to build consensus, building a strong ballot measure, persuading the voters and getting out the vote. He said public funds can be used to prepare the measure for the ballot, but once it is on the ballot, any efforts to promote it must be privately funded.

McLarney said the feasibility study indicates whether the measure would have a reasonable chance of passing if it goes on the ballot. His answer to that question, after conducting a survey of some 500 of Madera’s approximately 11,000 registered voters, was that 69 percent would be likely to vote yes.

That seems like phenomenal support for a new tax, but maybe not.

The questions posed to these voters was whether they would be willing to vote to improve police patrols; improve gang, drug and crime prevention; improve fire, paramedic and 9-1-1 response; improve street paving street paving and pothole repairs, improve graffiti removal; and maintain public areas.

The voters have a positive opinion of the city’s performance in providing those services, McLarney said.

But here is the kicker — this tax would be a general sales tax, which only requires 55 percent approval to become law. In the case of a general tax, the money can be used for any reasonable and lawful purpose to which the city council puts it. For example, it might be used to backfill an anticipated increase in retirement and medical costs for employees. A designated tax, on the other hand, for any or all of the above uses, would require two-thirds approval, and could only be used for purposes specifically intended by the voters. For example, the language for a designated tax, instead of saying “improve police patrols,” would be more specific, such as “hire four additional police officers and buy two additional patrol cars, fully equipped, to be used for additional patrols.”

The next City Council discussion on this matter will be on the agenda for the Aug. 3 meeting, starting at 6 p.m. at City Hall Council Chambers, and again at the Aug. 12 meeting, when a vote likely will be taken to place the measure on the November ballot.

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