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Published October 5th, 2016
Measure C Supporters Want Money to Stay in Lafayette

It seems all the controversy for the November election is not just the terrain of Hillary and Donald. Feelings are running high right here in Lafayette, specifically regarding tax Measure C.
It is a 1 percent sales tax for a period of 29 years, expected to provide $3 million annually and, and according to supporters, will fund general city services, prioritize the protection of open space, reduce downtown traffic congestion, enhance public safety, add downtown parking, acquire land for downtown parks and revitalize the historic Park Theater, with the money monitored by a citizens' oversight committee.
Lafayette's current sales tax is at 8.5 percent. The additional one percent would bring Lafayette in line with Moraga and Orinda, whose sales taxes are 9.5 percent and 9 percent respectively.
The measure is the result of two years of community surveys, both online and by mail, as well as "Community Conversations" initiated by city council member and former mayor, Brandt Andersson. In those meetings, close to 1,000 people identified areas of spending priority within the city.
In the fall of 2015 a Sales Tax Revenue Study subcommittee was set up to review the current budget sources and uses, to coordinate a public conversation regarding citizens' willingness to pay a sales tax increment and to advise the council. A sample of 436 likely voters suggested that 64 percent would support a sales tax increase if the funds were guaranteed to stay in Lafayette.
"The 'Citizens Vision' that grew out of the Community Conversations is surprising in some respects, but it both addresses concerns and identifies improvements," Andersson says. "Measure C can make that Citizens' Vision happen."
Although the current financial health of the city is excellent, the priorities identified through polling cannot be achieved as it stands, Andersson says. Vice mayor Mike Anderson agrees, pointing out that, "If the state's 10 percent cap on sales tax is filled up by regional or state measures that are on the ballot, the city will lose the opportunity to increase the city sales tax, and with it the ability to keep those tax revenues in Lafayette."
Notably, local businesses represented by the Chamber of Commerce are backing this measure, after years of opposing a local sales tax increase. Jay Lifson, executive director of the Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, says, "Our board voted to support for a few important reasons: There is an opportunity to raise the sales tax now or lose the chance if other agencies bring the sales tax over the cap. Our residents clearly support it and we want the voters to have a chance to vote on an increase."
Measure C requires a majority vote for passage. It is considered a general tax so the language of the measure can't specify or restrict the use of funds generated to specific projects.
And that is troubling for some. At a recent candidates and issues meeting hosted by the Lafayette Homeowners Council, Scott Sommer, a local resident and attorney, said that the city is hiding information from the voters. He accused the city government of raising the money with intent to build new city offices, something vehemently denied by former Lafayette mayor Anne Grodin who spoke in favor of the tax. She said that there is already a separate budget for a new city hall building.
Michael Griffith, founder of Save Lafayette which is strongly against Measure C, accused the government of having an alternative agenda and asked why this was not a measure requiring 66 percent approval to pass. "Fifty percent is a carte blanche for the city," he said.
Sommer pointed out that if money were borrowed against the projected sales tax revenue, for example to buy open space as it becomes available from private owners, then the money would not stay in Lafayette, as interest would be paid to out-of-town lenders.
He also cites several memos which he forwarded to the Lamorinda Weekly that indicated that the city was considering borrowing money against the (sales tax measure) to fund a "Civic Building."
"City memos dated Feb. 8 and July 11, 2016, state that the city is actively studying a 'Scenario 2 - Completely bonded; 30 year bond against 100 of the annual revenue stream' to borrow $58 Million in principal, and using 'Bond Proceeds from Sales Tax Measure $13,000,000' to acquire a site for a Civic Building," he said. "A major borrowing for buying or building a city hall is not disclosed in the sales tax measure," Sommer said.
He also cites an email exchange of July 13 and 14, also provided to the Lamorinda Weekly, between a site owner and Lafayette officials that ends with the statement, "better for us to wait to see if the sales tax measure passes on the November 2016 ballot."
"Clearly, acquisition of this civic building site is under consideration," Sommer says. "Legally, nothing stops this or a future city council from using the money for a 'borrowing' and a city hall."
Andersson called Sommer's comments "scare tactics."
"The Lafayette City Council has a long history of thoughtful, frugal decision-making, and has indicated, unanimously, that it will reserve Measure C funds to preserve open space, address traffic congestion, add downtown parking, support police services, and help revitalize the Park Theater," he said.
"If Measure C passes, the city may have the opportunity to obtain a large downtown park site near the library, consistent with developing downtown parks," another use of Measure C funds included in the ballot language, he said. While the council has studied the option of a civic building for that site, the city already has more than $5 million in notes and assets reserved for its construction, he said.
"So, to be crystal clear: no Measure C funds are necessary for the construction of a city office building. "
As controversial as the opponents are finding Measure C, the Contra Costa Taxpayers' Association has decided to take no position on this tax. President Jack Weir says, "During our board discussion, and my own conversations around the Lafayette community, there are clearly mixed feelings about the measure.
"In general, (we) feel Lafayette is one of the better-governed and managed cities in the county," Weir says. "Their policies on fiscal matters are generally frugal and prudent. Their contract with the sheriff's department for police services is smart; they have largely avoided the unfunded pension obligation that is now crippling so many municipalities."
The process in which the tax measure came about is also getting positive reviews. "Although the city council can't promise the money raised by the sales tax be used for specifics, the city has done a great job of giving the community a chance to tell them what they want to see in Lafayette's future," Lifson says. "And they are willing to pay for it. Our city council has demonstrated in the past that they take a responsible and conservative approach to keeping the city fiscally sound."

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