Oakdale voters will be asked to extend half-cent sales tax

The city’s voters will be asked in November to extend a half-cent sales tax that supporters say is critical for maintaining public safety and other services.

Voters approved Measure O in November 2011, but it expires March 31. Measure Y would extend the tax for an additional five years.

Measure O increased the city’s sales tax rate from 7.625 percent to 8.125 percent. The half-cent sales tax provides $1.5 million of the city’s $8.2 million general fund budget, which pays for basic services such as public safety.

Supporters say that if voters don’t extend the tax, Oakdale faces laying off police officers and firefighters and closing its community and senior centers. There isn’t much else to cut, they say.

Oakdale has reduced its number of employees from the equivalent of 102 full-time workers in 2007 to the equivalent of 70 full-timers today, City Manager Bryan Whitemyer said. He said the reductions included 25 middle-management positions.

“This is not to scare people,” Mayor Pat Paul said, “but if this doesn’t pass, the only thing we have left to lay off are police and fire (personnel).”

Still, Oakdale has reduced the number of its public safety workers since Measure O passed. The city has gone from 21 to 19 police officers and from 14 to 12 firefighters. But Measure Y supporters say the reductions would have been much greater without the half-cent sales tax.

Measure Y has garnered support that Measure O did not have. For instance, the Saddle Club – which owns and operates the Oakdale Rodeo grounds – and the Chamber of Commerce have endorsed the sales tax extension.

“We usually don’t get involved in politics,” Saddle Club board President Billy Jones said. “We basically believe the city needs that extra money to keep the Police Department and Fire Department running.”

Oakdale recently signed an agreement with Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District to have it provide fire services for the city and hire the city’s 12 firefighters. Oakdale still will have to provide the funding for the 12 firefighters. City officials said the savings from that agreement, plus the sales tax extension, would allow Oakdale to keep both of its fire stations open.

Chamber CEO Mary Guardiola said her board got behind the tax this time because the city has addressed its financial problems and has a plan to fix them. Oakdale faced a series of financial woes a couple of years ago, such as not having enough funds to pay back money it borrowed from the state for a $12 million upgrade to the wastewater treatment plant. The city renegotiated the loan with the state and is raising monthly wastewater bills over a few years.

Guardiola said a bigger reason for the support is that the chamber sees Oakdale, landowners and developers moving forward with retail centers on its east and west sides, which eventually will bring in revenue for the city and do away with the need for the half-cent sales tax.

“We can see the hope of having development in the next five years and having sales-tax dollars,” she said.

Whitemyer – who has been city manager since February 2013 – said there are plans for retail development from Crane to Reed roads along F Street on the west side, which could become a reality in three to five years. He said there also are plans at F Street and Stearns Road on the east side. He expects that development will take more time to become a reality.

The Yes on Measure Y campaign had raised $8,125 as of Sept. 30. House of Beef owner Steve Medlin, Steves Chevrolet Buick, Jay Gilbert of the A.L. Gilbert Co. and Dr. Krystyna Belski have donated $100 each. The campaign received $4,000 from the Oakdale Firefighters Association and $2,000 from Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3, which represents the city’s police officers and rank-and-file employees.

Union business agent Mike Eggener said the associations representing police officers and rank-and-file employees asked the Operating Engineers Local to make the campaign donation on their behalf.

Frank Clark, Yes on Measure Y campaign co-chairman, said the campaign funds are being used for mailers and newspaper advertisements and other efforts to sway voters. The city included a one-page Measure O Report in its recent utility bills sent to city residents and businesses, explaining the sales tax and how the money has been spent.

City officials said the report was sent for informational purposes only.

Paul said there has not been any official opposition to Measure Y. About a half-dozen people, she said, have consistently spoken against the measure at council meetings, claiming the city has put out misleading information about how the half-cent sales tax has been spent.

Paul said that’s not the case and the city set up an advisory oversight committee to ensure public safety was the top priority. The committee continues if voters approve Measure Y. The Stanislaus County civil grand jury received a complaint in October 2012 regarding Measure O and Oakdale, and issued a report in June 2013 that found no wrongdoing.

Measure O is a general tax, which means Oakdale has wide latitude in how the money is spent. But city officials say they have earmarked nearly all of the money for public safety. The Measure O Report states that 91 percent was spent on public safety in the budget year that ended June 30.

A small part of that 91 percent includes money for streetlights. The idea is that well-lighted streets deter crime. Oakdale turned off about a third of its streetlights before Measure O to save money. The remaining 9 percent of the tax money was spent on street sweeping, and on the community and senior centers.

Councilman Farrell Jackson cast the “no” vote when the City Council voted 4-1 in April to put Measure Y on the ballot. He said Oakdale needs the money but he opposed extending the sales tax because he wanted the city to put forward a public safety tax. A specific tax – such as one for police and fire – requires two-thirds voter support. A general tax requires a simple majority.

Measure O received 55.4 percent of the vote in November 2011.

Jackson said he believes voters would support a specific tax and that such a tax would set aside concerns over how Oakdale spends the money.

“There still are people in town who don’t believe (Measure O) is being spent on public safety,” he said. “  I think we could have gotten that two-thirds vote. There are a lot of people in this town who think we need more police officers and firefighters.”