Let the People Speak
A plea for democracy: Let the people we represent exercise their right to vote.
Context: After I drafted the news posting below I realized that some introduction was needed. Here it is: Yes, we are in a fiscal crisis, with annual unrelenting deficits, reserves that are depleted in July 2026, and the need to accumulate $10.4M between now and July 1, 2029 in order to balance our budget and gradually build up reserves. The details are below. We will eventually have to ask voters if they are willing to support the City through a tax measure. Or we will need to reduce staff and cut services if that's what voters prefer. I've studied the numbers and pondered the options and I'm convinced that there's no way around this conclusion. See We are in a fiscal crisis...full stop for all the details. I think we as Councilmembers should recognize the emergency and turn to the people of our town to allow them to weigh in on a solution.
As has been established by discussions in public Council meetings to date, some of my fellow Councilmembers agree that our fiscal situation is dire, and that a tax measure is essential, but others have expressed uncertainty. Those who are uncertain have the power to prevent voters from considering a sales tax measure in March. They can block the unanimous vote needed to declare a fiscal emergency and in that way prevent the 4/5 vote needed to support a sales tax measure in March. Those of us who see the urgency of our fiscal situation will have no alternative but to support a parcel tax measure, which can be brought to the voters in March with the support of three Councilmembers out of five, or to leave the voters of Sebastopol with no voice to be expressed in March of 2024.
I'm concerned that we as a Council have forgotten our role in this discussion. Our decision is not about imposing a tax. We don't have that authority. We only have the authority to determine whether those who live in our town should be allowed to make that decision. Should we allow our citizens to exercise their right to vote on a tax measure to stabilize their town? Or do we five on the Council somehow think we know better and are justified in blocking their ability to voice their opinions? Personally, seen from this perspective, for those of us who believe in democracy and the power of each voter to contribute to decision-making, I think we have to allow those who live in this town the opportunity to speak with their votes. That is, after all, their right.
To be clear, we do have a fiscal emergency. There is no other way to characterize our situation.
- We have a projected $1.7M deficit this year.
- We have reduced expenses and deferred maintenance and frozen positions and done all we can on the expense side.
- We face unrelenting $1.5M+ deficits each year into the foreseeable future.
- Over the next 7 years our cumulative deficit total climbs, each year adding onto the one before. The total over the next 7 years is $13.3M.
- Our current $5.1M in reserves will be depleted by July 1, 2026, used to cover the first three years of deficits.
- That will leave us on July 1, 2026 facing $8.6M in deficits building over the next four years, with a paltry $400,000 in our reserves.
- If this isn't a fiscal emergency, what is??!!
- Resources: The Budget: What was cut this year, Current Forecast, page 2 of 12 of the October 17 Staff Report on Revenue Options, The City's Budget Deficit: Cold Hard Facts.
We should not wait. Let the voters decide in March on a possible tax to stabilize their town.
Wait until November 2024? Let another year pass by before our residents can weigh in on this emergency, as our City resources dwindle? Leave our town's future to be lost in the multitude of demands on voters that the November election will bring? Let November be our first shot at stability, knowing that the next general election isn't until 2026? That doesn't feel right to me, and it doesn't ring true given what I know about the well-intentioned and community-minded people who sit with me on the Council.
Wait until 2026? We are all hoping that the long-awaited Piazza hotel will open its doors. Or that our fire services will consolidate and that we will see a resulting benefit to our general fund. I know all of us on the Council hope that one or both of these developments will bring much-needed revenue to our town. But to rely on hoped-for-but-uncertain-future-events as the basis for covering our real-and-not-to-be-denied-deficits just doesn't feel like the stable and responsible governance I know we all want for our town and our citizens. We want fiscal stability, and it's hard to achieve that if it's built on hoped-for future events.
What's the worst case scenario? We as a Council don't give voters the chance to vote on this issue, and in 2026 the City Council faces the stark reality of no reserves, a history of three years of deficits, a future of continuing annual deficits, and the knowledge that the Council did not act at the earliest possible date to allow the residents the right to vote on a tax to stabilize the town. That would, in my opinion, be a sad outcome for a group of electeds who clearly have the best intentions for this wonderful town.