*This story has been updated.
ATASCADERO — In Mid-January, the City of Atascadero contracted True North Research to perform a tax survey to gather public opinion regarding raising the City’s sales tax rate. The firm formulated a questionnaire and posed the questions to residents via e-mail and telephone. However, Deputy City Manager Lara Christensen said that not everyone received an e-mail or phone call from TNR.
“In order for this to work, [the study] has to be statistically valid,” Christensen said.
Christensen explained that TNR polled a specific demographic. People receiving the survey must be registered voters since it is a proposed ballot measure. The company pulled information and names from the most recent registration list from the County of San Luis Obispo among other sources. Participants must also be Atascadero residents. Since it’s a statistical poll, not every person meetings these requirements received the questionnaire or phone call.
“You may have five voters in the household, but could only have one person in the household that would receive it because it’s based on a random selection,” Christensen said.
Christensen said TNR would poll 400-plus people, which is standard for a city the size of Atascadero. The City expects to receive preliminary results around by late February or March.
The $25,000 spent on the study not only collects useful feedback but may be considered a preventative cost. Creating a Measure to put on a ballot takes staff hours to develop and present to the public and City Council members. Adding to the staffing hours cost, the City must pay up to $15,000 to the County for printing the Measure and its facts on the actual ballots. If the feasibility study shows that a new sales tax will most likely lose a popular vote, then the City will not spend the additional cost of putting the item on the ballot.
According to City Manager Rachelle Rickard, the tax would generate $2 million for the City annually with a half-cent tax. A half-cent sales tax means shoppers pay an additional $0.50 for every $100 spent.
“The fire station needs a huge overall,” said Christensen.
The money would not go toward promotional expenses such as fireworks for the tamale festival. Incidentally, the fireworks cost $5,000 and received funding from money previously earmarked for promotional services.
Cities on the Central Coast do not generate a sizeable amount from property taxes. The City’s Talk on the Block Report stated that of the $3,500 property tax, the City garners $494 while the County’s cut is $579 and schools get the lion’s share of $2,146. And Being a bedroom community — meaning people live here and shop elsewhere — Atascadero generates only $119 in sales tax per capita while its nearest neighbor, Paso, generates $538.
The City of Atascadero generates the least amount of tax dollars per capita than any of the incorporated cities in the County. According to the City’s 2016-2017 Fiscal Year Report, Atascadero generates $657 per capita in tax dollars, where Grover Beach (the second-lowest) produces $693 and Paso Robles creates $1,250 per year.
“It comes down to where and how Atascadero residents spend their money. There is no doubt that online shopping has dealt a serious financial blow to cities. The lack of big-box stores such as Target or Walmart also hinders Atascadero’s ability to generate revenue to fund city services. However, shopping locally may not be enough to help Atascadero, at least not in the short term. In November, 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. The latter generates only an additional $16 per capita. Still, if Atascadero residents deny a sales tax, it does not mean that neighboring cities will do the same.
“If other cities are also looking at a sales tax increase and our residents do a majority of their shopping outside of the City,” said Christensen, “…they are now helping to fund additional services in these cities where those services are then not being funded in our city.”