Poll to measure support for new sales tax

ATASCADERO — The City of Atascadero took its first steps Tuesday at examining a new tax initiative for the November 2020 ballot. The council voted 4-1, Councilmember Roberta Fonzi dissenting, to contract a polling company to examine possible tax options for the City.

In May 2019, the Council adopted a 2019/2021 Action Plan. One of the main focuses of the plan is to “foster financial stability” by considering a new tax measure for next year’s ballot. As part of the process, the City voted to allocate $25,000 from the general fund reserve to True North Research to conduct a voter opinion survey on the possibility of a new tax. 

“What I really want to be clear about tonight is this is the first step of looking at the feasibility of even moving forward with some type of a tax measure and that means we reach out to all of you to find out what are your priorities, what are you concerned about?” Mayor Heather Moreno told the public.

City Manager Rachelle Rickard presented the need for additional funds to the Council. Per Rickard’s report, Atascadero draws in the least amount of money per capita of all San Luis Obispo County cities. The report stated that the City draws $657 per capita (for each person) while Paso Robles makes $1,250, San Luis Obispo receives $1,443 and Pismo Beach gets a whopping $2,893. 

Rickard said that Atascadero simply does not have sufficient retail to generate revenue. Atascadero pulls in $119 per capita in sales tax while Paso generates almost four times that much at $464, even Morro Bay produces more than Atascadero at $187. This fact is evident in the per capita results laid out by Rickard with vastly different amounts for cities that have the same tax rate of 7.75 percent. Of the 7.75 percent, the State’s lion share is 6 percent while Atascadero only receives 1.5 percent.  

“We do not have a lot of retail here in the city limits, most groceries and other big stores mostly contain non-taxable goods and our sales tax per capita does reflect that,” said Rickard.

The rule of thumb for city finances is that businesses produce 80 percent of the revenue and residents use 80 percent of the resources. Those resources come in the form of police, firefighters, public works and administrative services. The City staff report appears to show that Atascadero leans more toward being a bedroom community where people live but spend their money elsewhere.

Rickard said she believes the City does a terrific job in providing services to the community despite its limited resources. For both fire and law enforcement services, Atascadero spends $373 per capita for a population of over 30,000 whiles Paso Robles spends $504 with a population of almost 31,000. President of the Atascadero Police Association Ron Overacker said that the APD is understaffed and overwhelmed.    

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“Our officers are stretched so thin that we are forced to become reactive instead of proactive when it comes to suspicious activity. We are overwhelmed with calls for service with less than one officer per one thousand,” Overacker told the Council.

Rickard said that economic development may not be enough to provide the City with sufficient funds to prosper or repair failing infrastructure such as the Fire Station No. 1 that was built in 1951. 

“Economic development helps the City’s revenue picture, however, we are very far behind in our revenue. We have a very large goal,” Rickard said. 

Rickard told the Council that a “new, nice, big restaurant” would optimally bring in up to $30,000 a year and a big-box retail store such as Walmart would generate $500,000 annually. However, she said a 0.5 cent sales tax would generate $2.2 million.