County Eyes Rival Sales Tax

Survey shows support for proposal to fund services; could
complicate VTA’s efforts to raise revenue for BART
San Jose – Santa Clara County residents are willing to pay higher sales tax to fund a broad spectrum of county services, according to a survey released by the county Thursday.

The results of the survey, in which 64 percent of respondents voiced support for a quarter-cent tax, and 63 percent said yes to a half-cent tax, raise the possibility of dueling initiatives on next year’s ballots.

If it does go forward with a tax measure, the county could complicate efforts by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority to raise additional sales tax revenue to extend BART to San Jose.

The county measure would fund health care, a variety of service programs for youths, families and seniors and provide some money for road improvements. A VTA measure would raise sales tax by a quarter-cent to fund BART and a batch of transit and road improvements throughout the county.

Neither agency has decided whether to go to voters, but should both measures end up on ballot, – it’s possible that one measure could appear in June and one in November – the county tax has two distinct advantages. It has broader appeal, and needs the support of only a bare majority. The narrowly focused VTA measure requires two-thirds support. Polls taken early this year, showed the VTA’s quarter-cent tax falling a few points shy of approval.

“I think any time you only need to get half of the people to vote for something that makes a big difference,” County Supervisor Liz Kniss said. “What I found interesting about the survey is that it seems as though people really do value the public services the county provides.”

According to the poll, no single issue emerged as a dominant priority among voters. Eighty-six percent said they wanted Valley Medical Center to remain open, but similar numbers said they are concerned about crime, traffic, housing, growth and taxes.

Kniss, who also serves on the VTA board and has been a vocal opponent of the $4.7-billion BART project, said the county’s survey results give added leverage to board members who want the VTA’s potential tax revenue to be spread more equitably among other projects, including Caltrain and road improvements in South County.

“I think {board members} are being more forthcoming in saying they’re not going to support the tax unless it’s fair,” Kniss said.

That includes Santa Clara County Supervisor Don Gage, who has led a group of South County politicians in a threat to not support the VTA measure, and the previously united group of the VTA’s five San Jose board members, who can’t reach consensus on the importance of various rail projects in that city.

Gage said this week he will try to delay an upcoming VTA vote on the tax. If he’s successful, and the VTA doesn’t decide on the tax issue until next year, the board may lose it’s pro-BART majority. Under the VTA’s system of rotating board seats among cities, two cities anxious for BART service will lose their seats at the end of the year to cities that would not be served by a new BART line, including Morgan Hill.

“Unless they modify the way they’re going, they’re not going to get my support,” Gage said. “They can’t just ram it down our throats. I’m not going to support anything unless there’s a fair plan.”

VTA officials declined to comment on the possibility of a county tax measure, but a spokeswoman for a business group that sponsored the VTA’s poll said she was “heartened that so many voters recognize the vital services our county provides.”

“We cannot speculate on whether the county will even go forward with a general purpose sales tax increase, or if private citizens will go forward with a transportation sales tax initiative, Silicon Valley Leadership Group spokeswoman Jenny Luciano said.

“At the end of the day, in a democracy, if one or both go to the ballot, voters will decide on the merits of one or both proposals.”

The county polled 800 residents, asking 400 about a quarter-cent tax and 400 about a half-cent tax. The poll’s margin of error is 4.9 percent.

Dueling Measures?

County Tax

• Quarter-cent or half-cent to fund health care, social services and road improvements

• Could appear on June or November 2006 ballot

• Needs 50 percent plus one vote to pass

• A half-cent tax would raise a projected $164 million in its first year. Gilroy could receive anywhere from $925,000 to $1.5 million.

VTA Tax

• Quarter-cent for BART and other transportation projects

• Could appear on June or November 2006 ballot

• Needs two-thirds majority

• Would raise about $5.1 billion over 30 years

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