[Humboldt County] O is the New Z: A Look at the Ballot Arguments For and Against County’s ‘Essential Services’ Sales Tax Measure

Blog note: this opinion piece references a grand jury report on the 2014 sales tax increase approved by the voters. The entire article is not reproduced here. To read it, go to: https://lostcoastoutpost.com/2018/oct/26/o-new-z-look-ballot-arguments-and-against-countys/.

Measure Z, the countywide half-a-percent sales tax approved by voters in 2014, seems pretty popular. It passed with 56 percent of the vote, and a survey of 500 likely voters conducted in April suggests that support has only grown in the years since. 

The question is whether it’s popular enough for voters to approve it indefinitely.

Measure O, which appears on ballots countywide this midterm election, asks voters to remove the original sunset date for Measure Z (March 31, 2020), leaving all other provisions intact. In effect, this would make the tax permanent — unless voters repeal it down the line with another ballot measure.

Z was sold to voters as a way to fund public safety and “essential services,” though the emphasis was definitely on public safety. And that’s where the largest portion of revenues has gone. (Annual revenues from Measure Z, by the way, have been significantly higher than the $6 million originally predicted.)

For the 2018-19 fiscal year, more than half of the projected $12.89 million in revenues has been allocated to “law and justice” efforts, including $4.87 million to the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, $1.24 million to the District Attorney’s Office and more than half a million to the Probation Department.

This year’s Humboldt County Grand Jury examined how Measure Z has “measured up” thus far, and while it had some concerns about transparency and accountability, the final report found Z to be “generally well implemented and successful” in its goal of enhancing public safety and essential services.

According to county staff, more than 70 new public safety projects have been funded by Measure Z and nearly $34 million has been spent since it took effect. Nearly 60 agencies around the county have received funds, including 35 volunteer fire districts. 

The authors of the “Yes on O” ballot argument — who include the Fortuna fire chief, the president of the Humboldt Deputy Sheriff’s Organization, and the chair of the Citizens’ Advisory Committee for Measure Z, which makes funding recommendations to the Board of Supervisors — again highlight the public safety stakes. Approving the measure, they say, will help fight drug use, protect abused children, maintain 911 emergency response times, and repair crumbling roads.

Taking up the “No on O” argument is Kent Sawatzky, Humboldt County’s most prolific public commenter and Vice President of the Humboldt County Taxpayers League. His case involves some confusing math as he invokes Measure S, the cannabis cultivation tax passed by voters in 2016, noting that it, too, was sold as a means to fund essential services and public safety.

Sawatzky suggests that the projected $7.8 million in revenue from the weed tax renders the Measure Z revenues somehow redundant or unnecessary. However, Measure S was also intended to cover “environmental cleanup/restoration; children/family mental health; drug rehabilitation; [and] other County services.”

Sawatzky’s numbered argument brings up some of the same criticisms as the Grand Jury report, including inadequate transparency and accountability as well as the lack of specific definitions for what constitutes “public safety” and “essential services.”

The Grand Jury began examining Measure Z processes following a citizen complaint about the Board of Supervisors’ 2016-17 allocation of Measure Z funds to the Boys and Girls Club of the Redwoods. 

“The complainant asked how staffing the club in McKinleyville was an appropriate use of public safety funds,” the Grand Jury report notes. “The organization’s application, which cannot be located on the Measure Z website, was not recommended to the [Board of Supervisors] by the [Measure Z Citizens’ Advisory Committee].”

While the report found that there was no clear consensus on what programs and services qualify for Measure Z funding, it also notes, “For the most part, recommendations made by the [Citizens’ Advisory Committee] have been indisputably related to public safety/essential services … .”

Sawatzky mentions another Grand Jury report finding: that voters were told in 2014 that Measure Z “would be subject to annual independent audits, but no such audits have taken place to date which compromises transparency and public trust.”

Sean Quincey, public information officer with the County of Humboldt, said that the county budget, including Measure Z funds, are already independently audited every year, as part of the county’s routine budget audits. But he said the Board of Supervisors agreed with the Grand Jury’s call for even more clarity.

“As a fiscally responsible county, our Board agrees the more transparency the better and voter-approved funding will be audited separately moving forward,” Quincey said via email. He also pointed out this tidbit from the Grand Jury report: “A loss of Measure Z funds could be catastrophic for Humboldt County since the anticipated revenue is necessary to maintain our current level of public safety.”

The county produces a report each year describing each of the projects funded through Measure Z and describing the outcome. The eighth point in Sawatkzy’s argument says, “Humboldt County taxpayers pay a high [sales] tax with only 12 of 58 California counties paying more.” While his figures are correct, this is misleading. 

Here’s why: The dozen counties with a higher sales tax rate than Humboldt’s 7.75 percent have a combined population of more than 19 million people. Their rates go as high as 9.5 percent, and even higher when you tack on the municipal taxes applied in many cities. Meanwhile, the 29 counties with a lower rate than ours all charge at least 7.25 percent (the state minimum) and have less than a quarter the population — about 4.6 million people. So we actually pay a lower sales tax rate than most Californians.

Sawatzky notes that Measure Z (and, by extension, Measure O) is a “regressive tax,” meaning poor people pay disproportionately more of their income than rich people do. This is a concern that’s been brought up by others, including the Humboldt & Del Norte Central Labor Council. But the Labor Council wound up endorsing Measure O — albeit “reluctantly” — with organization President Mike Hetticher explaining, “[W]e also understand the immediate and substantial impacts to essential services that the citizens of the county at-large would face if Measure O is not passed.”

One last element of Sawatzky’s argument that we want to examine: He says Eureka’s not getting its fair share of the spoils. This is a point that’s been made by Eureka’s own staff and elected representatives. Eureka City Councilmember Austin Allison said talks between the city and the county have been ongoing, and the county has encouraged Eureka to submit more applications.

“They definitely want this measure to be equitable for everyone,” Allison said.

Councilmember Natalie Arroyo said the city will indeed apply for more funds in the next cycle and “push a lot more heavily to have those projects be funded.”

While Arroyo has not endorsed Measure O, she has stated publicly that she intends to vote for it. 

October 26, 2018

Lost Coast Outpost

By Ryan Burns