Revenue seekers

Council putting sales tax measure before voters, ramping up pursuit of commercial air service

Councilman Karl Ory says re-establishing commercial air service is critical to buoying the city’s economy and creating more jobs, especially post-Camp Fire.

Councilman Karl Ory says re-establishing commercial air service is critical to buoying the city’s economy and creating more jobs, especially post-Camp Fire.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

While Chicoans believe the city is doing a good job when it comes to fire and disaster management efforts and quality of police services, they don’t think the City Council is managing taxpayer dollars well.

This finding was presented on Tuesday (Oct. 15) as part of a survey of 400 Chicoans conducted by consultant EMC Research. The main goal was to get a sense of whether voters would be in favor of a 1 percent sales tax increase. It garnered overwhelming support: 70 percent said they would vote yes in order to fund police, firefighters, roadway maintenance and Bidwell Park upkeep.

But this paradoxical finding, in particular, gave Mayor Randall Stone pause, and he recited it aloud to confirm it with consultant Jessica Polsky.

Councilwoman Ann Schwab asked Polsky to elaborate: Is this because people don’t trust government in general?

Polsky replied that anecdotally it’s typical to see voters responding less favorably about management of taxpayer dollars. In communities where there is significant pessimism or a demand for change, those responses tend to be more negative, she added, even if services are rated good overall.

The council saw a clear path forward based on the survey results, directing city staff to prepare a ballot measure and enlist a strategy consultant to help with education and outreach.

It would require a majority vote to change the current sales tax rate from 7.25 percent to 8.25 percent. If such a measure passes, the city estimates bringing in an additional $18 million per year to the general fund.

Other than voter support, another selling point for the council was a bleak five-year projection outlined by Assistant City Manager Chris Constantin. Rising costs and slowing economic growth, he said, likely will lead to emergency reductions in city services and staffing to avoid a deficit.

Though the council unanimously decided to put the issue in front of the voters (sans Councilman Scott Huber, who was absent), conservative council members Kasey Reynolds and Sean Morgan advocated for a special sales tax measure, which requires a two-thirds vote but would allow for stipulations on how the revenue can be spent.

“The public doesn’t trust us,” Morgan said. “I don’t necessarily trust those dollars to go where we say we’re going to put them unless we can absolutely earmark them, at which case then I say, look, let’s move ahead.”

Also on Tuesday, City Public Works Director of Engineering Brendan Ottoboni reported that 40 percent of the city’s roadways are in poor or very poor condition, meaning they are at or near a state of complete failure and need to be fully reconstructed. The findings come from the 2019 update of the city’s pavement management program. For example, Ottoboni showed a photo of Rio Lindo Avenue that looks like a checkerboard from patchwork repairs.

Since 2016, when the program was last updated, the city’s roads degraded significantly, Ottoboni said. Approximately $6.5 million is needed over the next five years just to maintain the status quo—business as usual, with a budget of $1 million per year, won’t cut it.

“Our check engine light’s on,” he said. “And as time goes by and we continue at this budgetary pace, we expect that [conditions] will continue to degrade.”

That night, the City Council also decided to take a more aggressive approach to pursuing commercial air service. City staff has been working on getting commercial service re-established locally since hiring an airport manager in 2016. Currently, a significant hurdle is establishing a revenue guarantee fund, which provides relief to airlines under specific terms should they come on board and experience financial loss.

The council voted to direct staff to create the fund and designate someone who will focus on raising the $1 million minimum needed. The city applied for a $500,000 grant through the U.S. Department of Transportation and should know in November if it is chosen. It received a letter of support from SkyWest, which serviced Chico before leaving in 2014.

Ory, who brought the issue forward, said re-establishing service is critical to buoying the city’s economy and creating more jobs, especially post-Camp Fire. “Access is the key for us to thrive,” he added.

The city also will send advocacy letters to several organizations, including to: the Butte County Association of Governments, asking it to support state and federal funding for public bus service to Sacramento; the state rail service, asking it to consider San Joaquin train service between Sacramento and Oroville as an economic necessity post-Camp Fire; and the Shasta Regional Transportation Agency, to integrate its state-funded electric bus system to the Sacramento International Airport with Chico’s system.

The vote fell 5-1, with Morgan against and Huber absent.

Morgan said he supported some initiatives but was mostly hesitant, calling commercial air service “a pipe dream” that the city is going to “spend a lot of time and energy chasing.”

A couple of Chicoans also were against the proposal, but for different reasons: climate impacts. Patrick Newman and Mary Kay Benson told the council it was headed in the wrong direction. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, aircraft travel accounts for 9 percent of all transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.

Schwab supported Ory’s convictions.

“In order for us to be successful economically, we have to be tied to the rest of the state. Since we can’t move over to [Interstate 5], we have to think of other ways to do that,” she said. “I think we need to get serious about identifying funding for some type of flying service out of Chico.”