Escondido voters back sales tax hike, study finds

A solid majority of Escondido voters would support a local sales tax measure if listed in the November ballot to help pay for city services, according to a city-commissioned survey.

According to a report by True North Research, Inc., support for the measure ranged from 62% if the tax was structured to end when voters decide to stop it, to 68% if the tax was established with an opt-out clause. 20 year extinction. who surveyed more than 1,000 registered Escondido voters in May.

The results were presented to the Escondido City Council at its Wednesday meeting.

“The results of this study suggest that if structured appropriately, focused on projects and services that voters identify as their priorities, and combined with effective public outreach/education and strong independent campaigning, the measurement of proposed sales tax has a good chance of passing if placed on the November 2022 ballot,” the report said.

Escondido voters’ top priorities for spending the money were public safety, public works and addressing homelessness, according to the report.

After some discussion, council asked staff to come back with draft language for a sales tax measure that council can consider. The measure would require at least four council votes to be placed on the ballot, but only a simple majority of votes in the election to pass, if structured as a general tax measure.

Ballot measures must be submitted to the county registrar of voters by Aug. 12 to be placed on the November ballot.

It remains to determine the amount of the proposed fee, such as one cent or less, the specific language of the ballot question and the duration of the fee.

The city is considering a sales tax increase as it faces deficits in its annual budget that will span the next two decades. During deliberations on the current year’s budget, which began July 1, the board had to make up an $8.5 million shortfall.

A major contributor to the city’s dire financial situation is an unfunded pension liability of nearly $300 million. The city must make payments to repay this debt to the state pension system. Annual payments range between $10 million and $22 million over the next two decades and payments will end in 2044, according to a city staff report.

The city’s pension obligations became one of the main points of contention during the council’s discussion on Wednesday.

Councilman Joe Garcia said the city’s pension debt should have been more clearly presented in the survey questions, and he said any ballot measure must also highlight the issue, because it is a major cause of the city’s projected budget deficits.

Staff presentations on the proposed sales tax increase outlined potential uses of the funds but did not specifically mention unfunded pension liabilities, Garcia said.

“I think we have to be completely honest and transparent with the community and say we have to pay for this and we need your help to do that,” Garcia said.

But Mayor Paul McNamara pushed back against the idea that the pension liability has been covered up, noting it has been highlighted in a number of staff briefings for council.

“We know this bill is not going away,” McNamara said. “It was supposed to be solved over the past 20 years, (but) it wasn’t. So I’m having trouble understanding your point of view.

“Since this hasn’t been addressed for the past 20 years, now in 2022 we should fix it,” Garcia said.

“Isn’t that what we do? McNamara asked.

Later in the discussion, McNamara said, “In the spirit of transparency, we also need to include in this that if they don’t vote for (the ballot measure), the quality of life in Escondido will decline. What he will do. We will not have the money we need to provide the quality of life at the current level.

Crafting the precise language of the ballot measure can be difficult, as the maximum word limit is 75, City Manager Sean McGlynn told council. But he said there will be other opportunities to inform the public, such as an educational webpage if the council places the article on the ballot.

Currently, Escondido’s sales tax is set at 7.75 percent, the state’s base rate plus a half-cent voter-approved regional increase to pay for transportation projects. Eight towns in the county, including Vista and Oceanside, have enacted local sales tax increases, according to a city staff report.

Because state law allows total local sales tax increases of up to 2 cents, if another regional tax were passed in San Diego County, it could limit Escondido’s ability to pass its own sales tax increase. Council member Mike Morasco said the situation looked like a “ticking time bomb waiting out there”.

A one-cent increase in sales tax would generate $28 million a year in new revenue, according to the report.

Denise W. Whigham