Council members said the tax hike is necessary to garner $4 million in extra revenue to plug the projected budget deficit in the fiscal year beginning next July. The alternative, they said, would be to lay off numerous police officers and other employees in an already depleted city staff – or declare bankruptcy.
But numerous residents urged them to not place the measure on the ballot, arguing that it would not raise $4 million, it would hurt Antioch businesses by driving customers to other cities, and it would not provide the additional police officers needed to fight violent crime. Several said that a parcel tax targeted at hiring more police makes more sense.
In response to the strong opposition to the sales tax hike, Councilman Reggie Moore indicated an interest in placing both the sales tax and parcel tax measures on the ballot. But a recent poll, indicating that a sales tax hike (which needs majority approval) would pass but a parcel tax (needing two-thirds approval) would fail, prompted the council to place only the sales tax on the ballot.
“We have tried very hard to articulate to the community that we are in very dire times and something needs to happen,” said Moore. “To do nothing could result in fiscal insolvency possibly. We need to take action. We know it’s very tough times; we are working-class people ourselves. We get it. But we also understand we have a responsibility to this community to do something. The push-back (from residents on the sales tax hike) is a little disconcerting to me.”
Contributing to the push-back is residents’ deep dissatisfaction with city officials and the way things are going in Antioch. Nearly two-thirds believe that Antioch is “pretty seriously off on the wrong track,” according to a poll of 400 registered voters conducted last month by EMC Research. More than two-thirds rate city officials’ management of the city’s budget and finances as either fair or poor.
“Despite this negative mood, Antioch voters understand the City’s need for additional revenue to support basic services,” the poll’s summary states. Fifty-five percent said they would vote for a half-cent sales tax hike to fund city services such as police, code enforcement and street repair. Another 3 percent said they are undecided but leaning toward voting for it.
In contrast, an annual parcel tax of $120 got a thumbs-up from only about two-fifths of the respondents. A $200 parcel tax receives support from only one-third of those polled. Those taxes are much higher than most residents would pay under the half-cent sales tax proposal, Councilman Brian Kalinowski pointed out.
“The reality is this council has to do something to address next year,” he said. “It’s unacceptable to allow further deterioration in the staffing of the police department and other critical services. The question is: ‘Is this a reasonable approach to ask the (sales tax) question?’ If people say, ‘Hell no, we don’t want it,’ it’s your community. We will make the move to reduce the staffing by $4 million. We can assume that 65 percent of a $4 million cut will have to come from public safety. I’m prepared to ask the question in November and hear the answer from the public.”
The survey results, which were released Wednesday morning after the council put the sales tax hike on the ballot, indicate that it could be a tough sell, particularly if it faces a strong opposition campaign.
Although most of those polled agree that the city needs more revenue, particularly to provide more police, 58 percent also agreed with the statement “Taxes are already high enough. I would vote against any tax increase regardless of how it might be used.” In addition, nearly half agreed that “the City of Antioch already has enough money, it is just not spent properly.”
Perhaps most telling, the sales tax hike failed to receive majority support (not counting the undecideds leaning one way or the other) after those polled listened to the following arguments against it: “Opponents of this measure say that families are struggling to make ends meet, and this is a terrible time to ask for a tax increase. The City Council and bureaucrats have caused this crisis with years of incompetence, waste and poor management; and the City should tighten its budget just like everyone else in these hard times.”
Further endangering support for the sales tax hike is the fact that Antioch voters also will be voting on a countywide $10 car registration fee hike for road repairs. Support for two tax measures dropped to just 35 percent when those polled were asked about the possibility of another tax measure on the ballot for local schools. After the survey was conducted, Antioch school officials decided to not place a tax measure on the ballot.
Former Councilman Allen Payton told the council he’s frustrated that city officials did not release the survey results before the council voted to place the sales tax hike on the ballot. “I understand some of the statistics may be embarrassing to the city, but we have a right to know,” he said.
City Manager Jim Jakel said the delay was due to waiting for the sponsors of the privately funded survey to agree to release the full results instead of just a summary. He said the results would be placed on the city’s Web site.
Also on Tuesday, the Council also rejected on a 3-2 vote Walmart’s request to expand its store to include a full grocery operation. Details on that decision will appear in next week’s Antioch Press.