Supes proceed with sales tax for public safety funds

The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously today to move forward with a 0.5 percent general sales tax to fund public safety services that will be placed on the November ballot if passed by the board on July 22.

Fifth District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg made the motion after a nearly three-hour discussion to proceed with a 0.5 percent general sales tax with a sunset date of five years and to establish a committee that will monitor the funds levied by the tax to ensure they go toward public safety. Both 3rd District Supervisor Mark Lovelace and 2nd District Supervisor Estelle Fennell tried to push for a higher rate of a 0.75 percent tax, with department heads from the county sheriff's office and probation department following suit.

With the board already asking his and all other departments to make cuts for this fiscal year, Chief Probation Officer Bill Damiano said any further cuts will cause the department to cut supervising services positions, which he says will increase the potential for crime.

"We've already cut the muscle from the bone," Damiano said.

If passed by voters in the upcoming November election, the tax would apply to both unincorporated and incorporated areas. With sales tax measures already implemented or proposed for the November ballot in several cities such as Eureka and Fortuna, Sundberg said he thought the additional three-fourths cent rate would hit those cities too hard.

"I think we can solve the problem without doing the three-fourths rate," he said. "My personal opinion is that a half-percent is a bit too much."

After making his arguments for the motion, Sundberg said that he still wants to hear from the county on whether the proposed rate is too low, too high or just right.

The board also had the option of moving forward with a 3 percent utility users tax for unincorporated areas of the county, which could have also included a section addressing excessive energy users.

County Administrative Officer Phillip Smith-Hanes said that the sales tax had a higher approval rating than the utility users tax options in the results from a poll conducted on 400 county individuals from June 16 through June 19. Smith-Hanes said the poll also showed that 66 percent of individuals thought crime was an extreme or serious problem in the county — a 15 percent increase since 2008.

While the problem that brought about the measure originated from the unincorporated area, the poll showed that voters would be less likely to vote on a sales tax measure limited to unincorporated areas than one that covered the entire county.

"Folks see these as countywide problems and want countywide mechanisms to address them," Smith-Hanes said.

The board will hear a first reading of the ordinance at its July 15 meeting when it will be able to make minor changes to the language. A final vote to place the measure on the November ballot is scheduled for the board's July 22 meeting, the deadline for the board to submit the measure.