Sacramento’s Measure U is the $28-million question

Measure U’s sales-tax bump would give City Hall a much-needed cash influx—but business leaders worry city council will squander it

Sacramento power brokers are divided over Measure U, which could attract big bucks to City Hall.

Sacramento power brokers are divided over Measure U, which could attract big bucks to City Hall.

illustration by priscilla garcia

Not unlike most high-stakes issues at City Hall, contentious drama—and, yes, even incompetence—envelop this November’s sales-tax-hike proposal, Measure U. From Mayor Kevin Johnson forgetting to file a ballot argument against the proposal to prominent local restaurateurs still waffling on their stances, the potential tax increase is more than just a $28-million question: It could be a harbinger of continued divisiveness among city leadership, or an opportunity to break bread over a meaningful chunk of cheddar.

Measure U wears its Sunday best on this fall’s ballot. It boasts a voter-friendly nomenclature, “Essential Services Protection Measure,” and needs but a simple majority of voters’ thumbs-up to increase the city sales tax by half a percent.

There’s no rival argument on the ballot, either—the mayor takes the heat for this—and revenue from the hike—8.25 percent up from 7.75 percent—will be used, according to analysis by interim City Attorney Sandra Talbott, to shore up police and fire services, park maintenance, libraries, and more.

Hard to argue against all of this.

But some contend the city doesn’t warrant the extra $28 million in projected revenue at the expense of local businesses. That leadership hasn’t earned a cozier fiscal cushion for the next six years.

Business owners and the Sacramento Metro Chamber, for instance, remind that city council couldn’t resolve its budget’s structural imbalance even when it had healthy coffers, pre-2008, so why should it be entrusted with millions now, especially during a struggling economy?

“I don’t have confidence that the money will necessarily be spent wisely,” argued local developer Mike Heller, who owns one of the city’s largest development firms, Heller Pacific, and the popular MARRS retail and office complex on 20th Street in Midtown.

He says the sales-tax boost will take leaders’ “eyes off the ball” when it comes to making government more efficient and effective.

At the same time, Heller also has faith in City Manager John Shirey. “The guy’s doing a helluva job in really difficult financial waters,” Heller told SN&R.

He recounted asking Shirey at a recent meeting whether he could look his “tenants in the eye and tell them, ‘You’re going to see more police out in front of our projects, you’re going to see less trash.’”

Shirey responded with, “Absolutely.”

This past Tuesday, city council approved the formation a special committee to oversee how Measure U revenue would be spent.

Still, business would rather stomach a smaller sales-tax uptick; the Sacramento Metro Chamber, for instance, lobbied for a quarter-percent over four years.

Dennis Rogers, with the public-policy and development wing of the Chamber, said he thinks his board actually would have supported a more modest bump, such as the quarter-percent proposal.

“I don’t believe we would have opposed,” he said.

This lesser sales-tax increase would have resolved the city’s projected budget deficit for next fiscal year. And, perhaps more importantly, it also might have fused much-needed unity between commerce and City Hall.

Instead, there’s persistent divisiveness—although Rogers did insist that he is pleased with recent developments, such as Councilmen Jay Schenirer and Darrell Fong’s work overhauling regulations.

“I want to highlight the fact that they’re moving in that direction,” Rogers added.

It’s worth noting that business also carries blame for not being forward thinking or collaborative. There have been feuds and grandstanding over Measure U, the most notable being a major local restaurateur’s about-face when the city rebuffed using his ballot-measure language supporting the sales tax in favor of Randall Selland’s argument, according to one city source.

Said prominent restaurateur is now a vocal opponent of the proposed hike.

Meanwhile, the Downtown Sacramento Partnership and the Midtown Business Association are stuck in the middle of this tug-of-war. Neither group intends to take a stand on Measure U and their members are split. Businesspeople don’t want to pass a sales-tax increase onto their customers. Nor do they want to see fewer cops or dirty streets.

Multiple sources have described to SN&R ardent boardroom debates over Measure U.

The Sacramento Bee editorial board recently endorsed a no vote on upping the sales tax. There are no polls looking at the increase’s popularity, but most sources SN&R chatted with shared the attitude that the measure will ultimately, if not easily, pass on November 6.