Taxes on the brain

Paradise and Oroville residents asked to tax themselves to bolster services

Despite being nestled in the same region of Northern California, Paradise and Oroville are quite different. Life on the Ridge has unique challenges, as does residing in the city dominated by a dam and a reservoir that provides water for many of California’s communities to the south. But one thing they do share is a severe lack of funding for everything from public safety to road improvements.

Enter Measure V in Paradise and Measure U in Oroville, a half-cent and 1 cent sales tax, respectively, to bolster their general funds.

Paradise’s proposed sales tax is actually an extension of a half-cent tax approved by voters in 2014. That one sunsets in 2021 after six years, but has a proven track record.

Measure V is expected to generate about $1.4 million a year. “As general fund revenues, the tax revenues may be used to pay for various Town services, including, but not limited to, the funding of public services such as fire protection and emergency response services, police protection, animal control services, and street maintenance,” according to the impartial analysis prepared by Paradise Town Attorney Dwight Moore.

The tax would be extended for an additional 10 years, sunsetting in 2031. It maintains a requirement of a nine-member citizens’ oversight committee charged with providing direction for funding and preparing regular updates for the Town Council.

“Basic necessities like groceries and prescription medications are NOT taxed,” say Mayor Jody Jones and Vice Mayor Greg Bolin in a letter arguing in favor of Measure V. “A retail sales tax is considered to be more ‘fair’ because visitors help pay a share of the cost for roads and emergency services on retail purchases.”

Nobody submitted an argument against Measure V, but one of the main talking points of those who oppose temporary taxes is that they tend not to remain temporary because stopping them means stopping services.

“Our primary goal and reason [to extend the tax] is to maintain services in the town of Paradise—mainly public safety services, police and fire, but with dedicated funding for roads and animal control,” acknowledged Gina Will, finance director for the town of Paradise. That’s not the whole story, however.

“We chose 10 years this time because we have a pension obligation bond that will be paid off in 10 years,” she continued. “That’s kind of where we came up with 10 years. Payments will be about $1 million a year, so we’re thinking we’ll be in better financial shape once that bond is paid off.”

Oroville’s Measure U is different from Paradise’s tax measure in a couple of key ways. First, it’s a full 1 cent; second, it has no sunset clause. It’s essentially the same as Measure R, which was brought before voters in 2016 and failed, with just 47 percent voting for it. Measure R was set to expire after six years.

“The tax would remain in place until repealed by the voters,” City Attorney Scott E. Huber explains in his impartial analysis of Measure U. “[A]ll revenue collected from the measure would be used by the city to pay for general city operations and services, including police protection, fire suppression, vehicle repair and maintenance, finance department analyst and human resources services,” he continues. “The city finance director estimates that, if passed, the measure would generate approximately $3.7 million per year.”

Half a dozen calls to Oroville City Hall, to half a dozen different people, were unanswered and were not returned—a tangible reminder that the city is understaffed.

“Yes on U ensures Oroville will add more police officers on neighborhood patrols and strengthen crime prevention and gang suppression programs,” write proponents of Measure U, which include Bill LaGrone, the city’s chief of fire and police; Ruth Wright, the city’s finance director; and Robert Wentz, CEO of Oroville Hospital.

“The city of Oroville has a backlog of million dollars’ worth of street maintenance and road repair projects,” their letter continues. “Measure U is a small price to pay to maintain essential services like police, fire, emergency response, street repairs, libraries, and youth and senior programs.”

The argument against the 1 cent tax, penned by local business owner Steve Christensen, points to actions by the City Council that indicate the funds would not be used as promised.

“California requires voter approval for raising existing taxes or imposing new taxes,” he writes. “Ask yourself, ‘Should I trust these people with more of my dollars?’”

Mayor Linda Dahlmeier countered that argument, saying the budget constraints the city has felt—in particular the recession and loss of redevelopment agency funds—have been beyond the council’s control. “There isn’t any more cutting to be done,” she told the CN&R. “We are down to the bare minimum.” She also pointed to safeguards included in the measure, such as the requirement of a citizens’ oversight committee and annual audits.

“You can look at this as a cost-of-living increase to the city of Oroville, which hasn’t had one in years,” Dahlmeier said. “When you look at all of the positive things that have happened in Paradise with the additional sales tax, that is exactly what any city would want to see.”