Wait for it …

Chatter about a local sales tax hike has resurfaced

Last month, while Chico’s elected leaders were vetting the proposed budget for the fiscal year, my jaw dropped when Loretta Torres and Stephanie Taber, both regular council meeting attendees, asked the panel to consider the prospect of raising taxes. Both women are staunch conservatives who were involved with the now-defunct Chico Tea Party Patriots. I couldn’t help but see the irony in them, of all people, practically begging the council to bring a proposal forward.

What spurred the when-pigs-fly moment? As Torres put it, “My bugaboo here is potholes, road maintenance.”

She pitched the idea May 16, following discussion of the then-preliminary budget. During a previous meeting, city staff said that “barely maintaining” Chico’s infrastructure—all of it, from streets and sewers to bike paths and parks—would cost about $16.2 million annually and yet a total of just $6.6 million is earmarked for infrastructure maintenance in 2017-18. Only about $1 million of that is set aside for streets, which, to be fully maintained (not improved), need $7 million annually.

In other words, Chicoans shouldn’t expect sorely needed repairs.

That’s where Torres’ plan comes into play: “I’m willing to touch that third rail that no politician ever touches: raise taxes. … People have told me they will not mind if it’s going to go to roads.”

Taber echoed her: “Somebody has got to have the courage to say, ‘We need to raise taxes.’ Either through property taxes or through sales taxes.”

The specter of a local sales tax hike has been floating around—mostly behind the scenes—for years. The subject came up briefly in 2014 in relation to the so-called Police Staffing Plan. The idea then was to generate revenue to pay explicitly for public safety.

It came up in earnest back in 2011, too, in the form of a .75 percent increase championed by a former city manager, Tom Lando, along with other local business people. Their idea was to dedicate the additional revenue to a variety of things, including the hiring of police officers, high school sports, theater and arts, library operations and a “pothole fund.”

None of Chico’s leaders latched on to the idea, and the group backing it didn’t move forward on a petition to take it to voters.

Another serious discussion took place a decade ago, right before the start of the economic collapse leading to the Great Recession. According to the CN&R’s archives, the talks were stanched based on analysis revealing that “over the past decade, the city has increased its compensation, especially for police officers and firefighters, at a rate far exceeding the growth in the Consumer Price Index, the city’s population and, most important, its general fund revenues.

“Salaries and benefits have gone up by a whopping 161 percent, while the CPI has increased by just 34 percent, the population by 43.5 percent, and general fund revenues by 112 percent.”

Sales taxes hit poor people the hardest because a greater share of their income is spent on them, so an increase won’t be an easy sell around these parts, especially now. It’s hard to say whether this latest tax-hike chatter will result in anything concrete. But, considering Torres and Taber support the idea, it’s bound to be a topic of discussion. Wait for it …