Bakersfield City Council members had mixed feelings about asking voters to approve a sales tax increase to ease the city's revenue concerns.
At its Wednesday night meeting, the council heard a presentation by Assistant City Manager Chris Huot that provided information about how the city will see a revenue shortfall over the next few years that could reach up to $16 million by the 2022-23 fiscal year, primarily due to rising CalPERS costs and other staff-related costs.
According to the presentation, the city will need to increase revenue through a sales tax increase or other tax measure, trim down on expenditures or both.
The idea of asking the community to support a sales tax increase received mixed reception from the council at the meeting.
Councilman Willie Rivera urged the council to consider alternatives to raise money or cut spending. Specifically, Rivera said that if commercial marijuana operations such as medical marijuana dispensaries were regulated rather than banned, the city could receive a lot of tax revenue from those businesses.
Rivera said another option would be to postpone capital improvement projects such as the 24th Street widening until a time at which the city is better able to fund them.
"I'm not convinced that what I've heard thus far from staff is really the whole picture in respect to our options," he said. "I'm not in favor of going to voters to ask them whether or not they think a sales tax is appropriate, because I don't think it is."
Councilman Bruce Freeman was more supportive of the tax idea in the sense that the entire Bakersfield economy could drastically change in the future.
"We need to recognize we have a long-term problem with our economy here," he said. "We have a state that is very hostile toward our specific industry (oil) and would probably like it to disappear if it could. It's going to be a battle and we can't program in a recovery. I think at some point we need some money for investing in a better community. You either grow or you shrink. You're either a winner or a loser. I want to be a winner."
Vice Mayor Bob Smith said he wants the community to make the decision on what it would be willing to support.
"We've got a decision to make and I think it's right to ask residents what they prefer," he said. "I look forward to some feedback on what the community wants."
Councilman Ken Weir was less supportive of a sales tax. Weir said the city is being punished for fiscal irresponsibility on behalf of CalPERS that has led to ballooning costs for cities that would eventually cost Bakersfield an extra $23.7 million a year by the 2025-26 fiscal year.
"To force local jurisdictions into the position of having to go to their constituents and ask them to foot the bill for the financial irresponsibility of others doesn't sit right with me," he said. "I think that's outlandish and would be an irresponsible mistake."
During the meeting, Councilman Rivera made a motion to table the discussion until a time at which the council decides to bring it back. Councilman Chris Parlier voiced support for the motion but Weir was concerned about a vote.
"I'm not comfortable when we have an item on the agenda that's a workshop or a report, not listed for action," he said. "To accept a motion on this I think is not the right thing to do. If we're going to proceed with accepting motions on this, then I will excuse myself."
Weir quickly left the dais. Rivera declined to withdraw his motion.
"I don't believe in wasting people's time and coming back to have this discussion over again," he said.
The motion failed with Rivera and Parlier voting for the motion. A motion to bring the issue back to the council at a future meeting for discussion passed despite Rivera giving the lone no vote, Weir absent and Parlier abstaining.
While Wednesday's presentation didn't go into proposed tax increase amounts, documents provided to the Californian show that one of the scenarios city staff had discussed with council members was a yearly 3 percent increase on the 7.25 percent sales tax (about a quarter point increase each year), a 5 percent increase on property taxes and a 2 percent increase in other revenues. Over a five-year period, that would still leave the city with a $5 million gap and would still mean the city wouldn't be able to hire additional staff.
According to experts familiar with open-meetings laws, the documents provided to the Californian suggest that city staff violated the Ralph M. Brown Act by giving presentations to the council during closed session on at least three occasions this year.
According to city agendas, the only closed-session items listed on those dates were conferences with counsel regarding potential or existing litigation.
The city does not face any legal action at this time.