CERES -- Voters appear to have overwhelmingly passed the city's half-cent public safety sales tax measure, according to unofficial election numbers early today.
Measure H was winning with 2,217 votes in favor, or 74.3 percent, and 768 against, or 25.7 percent. It needs two-thirds approval to pass.
Supporters attributed the apparent passage to community trust in the police and fire departments as well as the City Council, and the hard work of campaign volunteers.
Stanislaus County election officials still need to count several thousand absentee ballots this week.
"This appears to be a victory. It needs to be a confirmed victory, but I'm happy," Police and Fire Chief Art de Werk said. "In some ways, the hard work has just started. We've got to accelerate the recruiting and hiring process."
De Werk hopes to bring police and fire staffing numbers up to par with other agencies. For instance, Ceres has 1.07 police officers for every 1,000 residents; Modesto's ratio is 1.35.
Measure H would increase the sales tax by a half cent, from 7.375 percent to 7.875 percent. The addi- tional revenue will pay for more police officers, firefighters and equipment. The tax will bring in an estimated $2.5 million in its first year and $31.4 million over 10 years.
Celebrating with Measure H campaign volunteers and community members at Evanshire Gardens, de Werk compared his feelings to the night Sgt. Howard Stevenson was killed in the line of duty in 2005.
"It was a time when the community and the agency and the people who were friends and family of the Ceres Department of Safety pulled together in a positive way," he said. "The same thing is happening -- people have pulled together in a very powerful and positive way."
No organized opposition
De Werk said he was surprised by the returns -- he thought Measure H would lose narrowly or win narrowly.
Early surveys of likely voters conducted by the city showed enough support for the measure to meet the two-thirds threshold. There was no organized opposition.
Re-elected Mayor Anthony Cannella acknowledged that low voter turnout probably played a role in the passage.
"The people who voted in this election are the ones who vote in every election, and they're the most informed," he said.
Measure H calls for funds to be spent solely on public safety, and requires an independent citizens oversight committee and annual audit to monitor the spending.
The tax allows the City Council to amend "from time to time" the expenditure plan with a majority vote. The initiative has no sunset date.
De Werk and Cannella said they would favor rescinding the sales tax if the city's economy picked up enough steam to fully fund the public safety department.
"It's not our desire to tax the citizens for no reason," Cannella said.
Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2339.