City of Tehachapi voters will find a proposal for a half-cent general sales tax measure on the Nov. 4 ballot following approval by the Tehachapi City Council on Aug. 4.
In a 5-0 vote, the council approved putting the sales tax measure on the ballot following presentations by city staff and opinions from the audience.
City Manager Greg Garrett billed the proposed sales tax increase as an investment in a private company.
As a general sales tax, it would only require a simple majority vote of the public, instead of a two-thirds vote required for special taxes. The revenue would be audited annually by an independent firm.
The tax would last 10 years if approved by voters in November, and raise the rate from 7.5 percent to 8 percent.
"Even though we are government, we try very hard to run Tehachapi as a private business," Garrett said. He noted the city has strived to balance its budget and live within its means, and stressed the sales tax was not a 'make or break' deal for Tehachapi services.
"I want to go from good to great," Garrett said.
The proposed sales tax could generate $1.4 million per year on all general taxable items, excluding groceries, he said.
All the revenue would stay local, city staff said, exempt from the "long arm of the state."
An emphasis for the revenue has been placed on investing more into roads, but Garrett added other investments, such as beautification projects, quality of life and public safety would be targeted for items.
Garrett also noted the loss of funds since California dissolved the city's redevelopment agency in 2012, causing the city to lose $1.3 million a year in revenue.
Despite this, he said the city continues to maintain services and keep a solid, balanced budget.
"We've weathered the recession and I'm proud of that," Garrett said.
With revenue generated by the proposed tax, the city could move forward with increased improvements.
"At some point in every business's life, you need more capital," Garrett said. "That's what I'm talking about."
Assistant City Manager Chris Kirk and City Engineer Jay Schlosser made an argument that the funding could benefit local road projects.
Kirk said that the city has two primary sources of funding for roads: gas tax revenue and Transportation Development Act money. On average, the city's annual budget is $775,000 for road improvement and maintenance.
Everything else comes from aggressively pursuing grants, like the Challenger Drive extension project currently under way.
Schlosser, the city engineer, said the city last year began a survey of its road conditions and could pinpoint which ones are considered in need of repair and which ones are in good condition.
State and federal grants come with strings attached, and likely only are used for major roads like Tucker or Tehachapi Boulevard. Neighborhood roads draw the short straw.
Schlosser was up front that costs would far exceed what would be generated. But with local tax revenue, the city could help offset some of the cost it takes to maintain local streets.
If voters don't approve the tax measure, the city will simply continue to apply for grants.
But grants require matching funds, Schlosser said. Some grants require a 10 percent match from the city, so a $1 million grant would require $100,000.
Other ways the city could use tax revenue for include development. Schlosser used the renovations of BeeKay Theatre and the Depot as examples of what the city had done in the past with RDA money.
Garrett cautioned that the sales tax would generate only so much and would be used for big ticket items like roads.
Public reception was mixed regarding the sales tax.
Tehachapi business owner Craig Britton noted it might drive more shoppers down the hill to Bakersfield.
"My gut feeling is that there is enough reasons for people to go off the mountain to buy high ticket items," Britton said. "We don't need to give them another one."
Daniel Christiansen took exception to the fact the city would not educate people on the ballot measure, noting that many voters would not read a ballot measure until they reached the polls.
Garrett noted the city could not legally promote the ballot, nor would any of his staff do so while on the clock.
Socorro Schmidt, a Tehachapi resident, spoke in favor of the tax.
"I like a town that takes care of itself, that washes its face in the morning and combs its hair at night," Schmidt said. "I do not like to go into little communities that don't look like they care at all or have any civic pride.
Matt Young, general manager of the Tehachapi Valley Recreation and Parks District, also favored the tax. He said it would help to fix things that need fixing and minimize deferred maintenance.
Prior to voting, council members offered their own input on the tax.
Mayor Pro Tem Susan Wiggins implored to educate themselves on the tax before making up their minds, and to speak to the facts behind the sales tax.
"Whether or not you vote for this, people should know there are strings attached in the sense that we have to show what we have to do (with the money)," Wiggins said.
Councilwoman Mary Lou Corpus-Zamudio called it a calculated risk that could benefit the community, its businesses and even property values.
Councilwoman Kim Nixon said with or without the tax, the city will continue improving itself.
"It will just make it easier if we have some extra money," Nixon said. "I think it's right for us to be proactive and plan for the future."
Councilman Ed Grimes recalled the growth of the Tehachapi area from 1,500 people in 1949 to nearly 40,000 it has now.
"You have to understand from about 1950 to 2000, we didn't grow very much and one of the reasons was we had city fathers ... that didn't have any vision," Grimes said. "The only thing they were interested in was protecting their own little turf."
Thinking that way, Grimes said, did not benefit cities and communities.
"I think this all boils down to is do we want to grow or do we want to die?" Grimes said. "And I can tell for you 50 years, Tehachapi wanted to die."
That ended only when a succession of city councils took initiative and thought big.
Mayor Phil Smith ended by noting the tax measure is in the hands of voters.
"Have an open mind, do your research and see if this makes sense to you," Smith said.