Split vote rejects county sales tax plan for Covid-19 deficits


By Barry Holtzclaw

There will be no proposal for a 0.625-cent increase in the Santa Clara County sales tax on the Nov. 3 ballot.

The Board of Supervisors on Aug. 4 fell one vote short in a bid led by Board President Cindy Chavez to place a simple-majority tax measure on the fall ballot.

Dire warnings of annual deficits of up to $600 million, “probably thousands” of county layoffs, a mushrooming homeless population, children with no daycare, and “the looming devastation of a recession” failed to convince Supervisors Mike Wasserman and Joe Simitian that a tax boost was needed.

“There is no guarantee that any of these funds will be used” for the specific public health, small business or family needs attributable to the Covid-19 pandemic, said Simitian.

“We don’t know how long this thing will last—hopefully things will look better in six months,” said Wasserman, preferring optimism to the ominous forecasts of County Executive Jeff Smith.

“What we’re talking about is trying to be responsive to the neediest people in our community,” Chavez said. “I’d like to head off as much suffering as we can.”

Chavez and Supervisors Susan Ellenberg and Dave Cortese voted in favor of the measure to ask voters in November to approve increasing the county sales tax to 9.625 percent, from its current 9 percent, in 2021.

The rejected plan would have required only a simple majority at the polls for approval. After the vote, Chavez pulled an alternative referendum—one that needed only three supervisor votes but two-thirds approval of county voters—off the agenda, expressing doubts it could pass in November. This approach, for a special tax, would have required the county to limit any spending to specific programs and purposes.

Ellenberg said a county poll showed that pandemic-related sales tax increase has nearly 67 percent public support.

Smith told supervisors that budget reserves could make up for deficits in 2020-21, but that continuing shortfalls related to increased public health and social services costs to combat the pandemic would require significant layoffs in subsequent years.

The supervisors did agree unanimously to endorse a plan to place a Bay-Area-wide one-eighth-cent—0.125 percent—sales tax on the Nov. 3 ballot to bail out CalTrain.