Council updates Measure K

City leaders first approved the tax without discussion
By: Stephanie Dumm, News Messenger Reporter
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City Council called a special meeting at last week’s City Council to amend the proposed utility users’ tax (UUT). That was after council unanimously approved placing the tax on the November ballot, without asking questions about the tax at its June 22 meeting. The proposed tax was approved by the council to raise funds for General Fund funded services, which are police, fire, library, and parks and recreation services. Utilities that could be taxed included cell phones; telephones; city utilities such as water, sewer and garbage; and PG&E. Mayor Tom Cosgrove said Wednesday that he did not know what the tax revenue would be. In the July 14 issue of The News Messenger, however, Lincoln Assistant City Manager/Chief Financial Officer Anna Jatczak reported that the tax could net the city between $2.7 and $2.9 million. If the tax doesn’t pass in the November election, four police officers could lose their jobs in January, and library and recreation services could be reduced further, according to City Manager Jim Estep in previous News Messenger reports. Wednesday’s special meeting was set by the city last Friday to decide whether cable television should be taxed since satellite television cannot legally be taxed. City Council voted to place the tax, also known as Measure K, on the November ballot after no discussion about the measure at its June 22 meeting. “There was no discussion. I was at the meeting, there was no discussion from the council people and they voted it in unanimously,” said resident and Dorsey Capital Management owner Terry Dorsey. “Even our federal and state legislatures have open debate before they vote on a bill. Why can’t our City Council do the same for something as important as our 2010-2011 budget?’ Dorsey said “something as important” as the utility users’ tax “needed more discussion.” Ron Barringer, who served on the City Council in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, said more discussion “was probably needed.” “To make a decision without a lot of discussion just isn’t correct,” Barringer said. Council members received the Measure K ordinance three days before the June 22 City Council meeting, according to previous News Messenger reports. Barringer said the council should have received the ordinance more than three days before voting to place it on the November ballot. “That’s way too soon,” Barringer said. “You have to study the issue that you dealing with to make a decision that’s going to benefit the people.” When asked why there wasn’t more discussion about the measure during the June meeting, specifically about concerns related about taxing cable television, Councilman Paul Joiner said “the ordinance came forward to us. I read through it and was comfortable with my understanding of it.” “It didn’t occur to me at the time that an unfair competitive advantage was given to satellite TV providers, which by law can’t be taxed, over cable TV providers,” Joiner said. Joiner told The News Messenger that he “would have liked to see it (the resolution) sooner” to “have more time to study it at greater depth.” When The News Messenger asked Cosgrove why there had been so little discussion about the ordinance, Cosgrove said he did have questions about the tax during the June 22 meeting. “The interest I had was that the ordinance, the way it was written, was broad enough to allow us the discretion to implement a strong UUT in the community,” Cosgrove said. “We voted on it and it also give us the option to make adjustments to the ordinance as long as the intent of the ordinance remains intact.” Cosgrove told The News Messenger on Tuesday that one reason the ordinance didn’t come to the City Council sooner “was because we wanted to get the budget ironed out” before the new fiscal year started on July 1. “We have a deadline and we consider it very important to make sure out budget is done when it was supposed to be done,” Cosgrove said. “We want to start our fiscal year with an adopted budget in place. Part of the decision to place this issue on the ballot came from an understanding of what our budget is for the coming year and what our financial circumstances are for this year and the coming year.” When asked how much Measure K will bring in for the city, Cosgrove did not have that number Tuesday, stating “that’s part of what we’ll review tomorrow night.” “We have general numbers available, but keep in mind, those are always projections,” Cosgrove said. “We have asked to view the numbers tonight.” Councilman Spencer Short said Monday afternoon that the council did discuss the tax before deciding to put it on the ballot. Short said the ordinance was reviewed during the June 22 meeting, and “we made a decision to put an ordinance based on carefully considered material.” When asked why the resolution to place Measure K on the November ballot wasn’t on a City Council agenda prior to the June 22 meeting, Short accused The News Messenger “of taking a slant on the story.” Councilman Kent Nakata was asked the same questions about why there wasn’t more discussion about the tax and why the tax didn’t come before the council sooner. “There are certain things brought up by the public and concerned people as to what was going to be charged, and at that time, that was not discussed because we didn’t receive it (the public’s concerns),” Nakata said Tuesday. How would City Council candidates have handled the utilities users’ tax? The News Messenger asked City Council candidates running for two seats in November what they thought of Wednesday’s special Measure K meeting. “I think the city could have done things better the first time around,” Gabriel Hydrick said. “They’ve been kicking around the idea of a UUT for awhile now. To come up with a patchwork ballot for the people at the last minute just shows a lack of leadership.” Hydrick said he did “appreciate” the city holding the special meeting. “I applaud them for taking the next right step. I’m interested to see what will happen in that meeting,” Hydrick said. “I appreciate the city taking the next step for the people and really hunkering down and figuring out what it is they have to do.” Stan Nader said the city should “certainly make corrections to any errors that might be in the document.” “Although I don’t consider it an error but they should have caught that before it was approved,” Nader said, referring to the Measure K section about video services. “They didn’t really give themselves much time to catch these errors before they sent it to the county.” Nader said he would have proposed a community facilities district since the money would go straight to police and fire. “People said they’d support the tax if they knew it would go to police and fire,” Nader said. Richard Pearl, chairman of the Citizen Advisory Tax Force that suggested a utility tax in June 2009, said Wednesday’s meeting was “important to do.” “I think the information has to get out there and they have to fine tune the resolution,” Pearl said. “In a perfect world, it should have been done differently but that’s not the case. Things were happening very quickly and they have to fix it at this point.” Pearl was asked what he would have done differently. “I think the starting of it and the delivery to the City Council should have been earlier so that they had more time to digest it and ask questions,” Pearl said. Jeff Greenberg said city staff could have prevented this meeting. “The meeting would not be necessary if staff had researched all of the components of the UUT before submitting it to the City Council on June 22,” Greenberg said. “I would have included a discussion of the proposed UUT during the community budget meetings held during the spring. That way, the City Council and city staff would have been able to craft something a little more palatable and something more closely resembling what the citizen advisory committee recommended.” As a council member, Greenberg said, more research and discussion “would have given me the time to find out the extent to which utilities can cooperate, participate and at what cost.” The News Messenger made several phone calls to Councilwoman Linda Stackpoole, which were not returned. Her seat is one of the two up for election in November.