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Rohnert Park sales tax extension headed for ballot

In what had become an increasingly foregone development, the Rohnert Park City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to ask city voters to extend Measure E, a half-cent sales tax that was passed in 2010 and originally intended to expire in 2015.

“I believe that the community believes in us just as we believe in the community,” said Vice-Mayor Joe Callinan. “They stood behind us in 2010 and I hope they'll stand behind us again.”

The election for the extension is to be set for Nov. 5. A “yes” vote would extend the tax measure permanently, or until voters overturn it or the council suspends it. It needs a majority vote to pass. In 2010 it won 55 percent to 45 percent, lifting the city's sales tax rate to 9.5 percent.

When Measure E was passed, the city faced a $5 million general fund deficit. That has since been cut to a still-daunting $1.4 million during a period in which the number of city employees was slashed from about 190 to 148.

City Manager Gabe Gonzalez made the case Tuesday for seeking an extension. He pointed to the remaining deficit and raised the specter that losing the more than $3 million a year that Measure E brings in would disastrously impact city services.

The sales tax revenue “is essential to the viability of the city and our quality of life,” Gonzalez said.

He and the council have assiduously laid the groundwork for such a move for more than a year.

Gonzalez floated the idea in early 2012. The council, at his urging, in June declared a fiscal crisis, a necessary condition to holding a special election to ask for the extension. They set aside $25,000 toward an election. And they commissioned a survey that found that two-thirds of citizens would support the extension bid.

On Tuesday, Councilman Jake Mackenzie said extending the tax would be, in part, a recognition of “the distribution of sales tax up and down the (Highway) 101 corridor.”

He cited the Target Store opening today in Petaluma as a development that threatens to draw revenue from the city.

“That's the giant sucking sound of sales tax dollars going to Petaluma, not into the city of Rohnert Park,” he said.

City officials repeatedly pressed the point that extending the measure was not raising taxes — rather, it would extend a tax that had already been raised.

In his four-page report to the council, Assistant City Manager Darrin Jenkins repeated that point six times. Gonzalez emphasized it in his presentation. And Mayor Pam Stafford said, “We aren't asking folks to spend more than they already are — we're asking them to support what we have, that's extremely important.”

Councilwoman Gina Belforte was absent.

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.

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