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A special series by Sarah Reith about the financial realities of Mendocino County governance.

Fort Bragg City Council decides against sales tax for workforce housing

A gray two-story building with a rounded red doorway, seen from across the street with cars in front.
Fort Bragg City website
Fort Bragg City Hall.

The Council decided the financial outlook is poor for a 3/8 cent sales tax for workforce housing to succeed in the next election, especially with two other taxes on the November ballot.

August 11, 2022 — The Fort Bragg City Council had second thoughts this week about its own plans for a sales tax that would have been used to fund workforce housing.

The proposal for a ⅜ cent sales tax would have been a general tax, needing only a simple majority to pass and going into the city’s general fund. An oversight committee was going to make sure the estimated $650,000 to $800,000 a year was used for the stated purpose, but that’s not guaranteed with general taxes, as former interim city manager David Spaur, who now works as a consultant for the city, explained.

“Having the funds go into the general fund, and then earmarking or designating them towards your specific purpose, allows you to build that account for your specific purpose, but in the event of an emergency, if the Council needed the funds for police, or for fire, or for flood or famine, those funds would be available to you,” he said. “But the oversight committee would want you to possibly replace those funds and backfill them at a later date, or find alternative sources of revenue to replace those funds.”

Council member Tess Albin Smith asked Spaur what the city could do with less than a million dollars a year. She said $800,000 “does not seem like enough to do anything with workforce housing. So I’m wondering, are we just going to save it up until we get enough? What would we do with $800,000? What’s the plan?”

Spaur replied that the money “will allow you to leverage your housing community development funds for $800,000 into $1.6 million. So with a 50% match, you can double it. You can accrue those funds over several years. You can use those funds to purchase property, or a down payment on property, and then use grant funds and others to close on that property. So it’s a good start. It’s a good bite at the apple. Obviously, you’re going to need a couple bites at the apple. You’ve got a housing crisis going on, and you need to find revenue sources specifically for workforce housing, for the workers, and have that housing be deed-restricted. You also need the funds. So creating some source that helps the city apply for other grants and leverage the funds is needed, whether it be this source or another source.”

There will be two taxes on the county ballot in November. During public comment, Supervisor Dan Gjerde told the council that he’s worried that a third ballot measure asking for a tax would doom all three. Fractions of two already-existing taxes are sunsetting: Measure B, a special tax to fund mental healthcare facilities; and Measure A, for the libraries. Library supporters got enough signatures to put a quarter cent proposal, Measure O, on November’s ballot. The Board of Supervisors is also asking voters to approve Measure P, another quarter cent sales tax for fighting fire and fire prevention. Gjerde was key in getting the Board of Supervisors to drop its original idea to include funding water projects, in part by arguing that the Board does not have the political credibility of a citizens group.

“I think this is a great, worthy proposal that you have,” he said. “My concern is the timing….One thing you should know is, in the last couple of years, California courts have ruled that if the voters collect signatures and put a tax on the ballot for a specific purpose, it only takes a 50% (plus one majority) to pass. So the library folks have figured that out, and that’s part of the reason why they went directly to the voters. First of all, they gathered support by getting people to sign up to put it on the ballot. Secondly, they know it only takes 50% (plus one majority to pass) and they can guarantee how the money is being spent. So with this proposal, if there was a sales tax, if the voters here in Fort Bragg, if we were to collect signatures and put it on the ballot, it could potentially be ready for the next election. At the latest, that would be March of 2024, the presidential primary…I actually think there’s an advantage, when you have fewer things on the ballot. I think people are better able to understand the proposal itself. And I think they are therefore more likely to vote yes. I think if they don’t know enough about a proposal, they’re more likely to vote no. Anyway, again, I’m just concerned that if there are three taxes on this election, they’re more likely to all go down in defeat.”

Mayor Bernie Norvell cited the lack of trust in government at the county as he agreed with most of his colleagues that now is the wrong time to ask voters to pay more taxes. “I’m going to fall in line here,” he said. “I think the timing is just not right for a general tax. I don’t think there’s trust in government right now. If you have followed the county, they got a lot of heat. I don’t think there’s trust with the county right now. I do think they’ll get their library tax. I hope they get their fire tax. I think we’re in a better position than the county with government trust, and I would hate to see this project get a stain on it by not getting the necessary votes, and I just don’t think it will. With looming recession, inflation, I don’t think it’s a great time right now to be taxing people. Again, if you go back and watch some of the county meetings, that was a lot of the discussion, is why now, why more taxes. If we do shoot this down tonight, it may send a message of goodwill, that we understand the economy, and what people are struggling with…I’m just not going to support this. I’m going to recommend no action on this item. But Mr. Spaur, you did everything we asked you to do…I think a year and a half or even two years ago, when we started this, and even at the budget meeting, I think we were right then. I just think so much has changed since then. I just don’t want this to reflect on you at all. Because this was our idea, and I think you did an amazing job putting the report together.”

Local News
Sarah Reith came to Mendocino County in 2008 and worked as a reporter and freelancer, joining KZYX as a community news reporter in 2017. She became the KZYX News Director in March, 2023.