Weighing cost and political timing against an urgent need for new jails, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to decide today when to seek voter approval of a proposed half-cent sales-tax increase that would raise $1.6 billion for new jails and courts.
With the supervisors having repeatedly emphasized that the only question facing them is when, not whether, to ask voters to increase the sales tax, the chief decision confronting the board is whether to schedule a special April election or to include the proposed tax increase on the June statewide primary ballot.
"There are pros and cons to both times," Supervisor Brian Bilbray said. "And no matter what the board does, a lot of people are going to be unhappy."
The proposed half-cent sales-tax increase, if approved by voters, would raise the county's sales tax to 7%. Currently, the sales tax is 6%, but it is scheduled to increase to 6 1/2% this spring as a result of voters' approval last November of Proposition A, a sales-tax increase designed to improve regional transportation.
April Election Endorsed
Setting the stage for today's meeting, the Regional Justice Facility Financing Agency on Monday recommended that the board approve an April election for the proposed 10-year sales-tax hike. The seven-member agency, which consists of representatives from the city, county and local criminal justice agencies, argued that a special April vote--when the proposed tax increase would not have to share the ballot with dozens of local, state and national contests, as it would in June--would offer the best chance for approval of the measure.
Concurring with that theory, Supervisor George Bailey argued that proponents of the sales-tax proposal would find it "easier to get out the message to the people if it's not in competition with the world."
"In June, just about every elected official in the state is on the ballot, along with a lot of propositions," Bailey said. "I'm concerned this (sales-tax proposal) might get lost in the shuffle. Plus, everyone running is going to have an opponent, and that means they'll take sides on this. We could do without that--it's going to be tough enough to convince people."
Another potential advantage to scheduling a special April election, Bilbray noted, is that doing so "would demonstrate that there is a genuine crisis . . . that needs immediate attention."
"We've already got the crisis--I mean, we're at the point where it doesn't make sense to put another police officer out on the street until we have enough jails--but this would drive home that point," Bilbray said. Over the past two years, the inmate population in the county's six jails has typically been double the facilities' official capacity.
Even supporters of the April timetable, however, admit that they are distressed by the prospect of spending $750,000 for a special election at a time when numerous county programs face cuts because of severe budget constraints.
"That bothers me, but I'm not sure that waiting a couple months is a better alternative," Bailey said.
In addition to saving the county money, a June election, some argue, also would give supporters of the tax-increase proposal more time to try to persuade the public of the merits of the plan--though admittedly at the risk of having the measure overshadowed by the presidential primary and other high-profile races being contested in June.
A minority viewpoint holds that the proposed tax increase should not be put before voters until November--a recommendation founded on the premise that, with the local sales tax already scheduled to rise this spring, voters will be in no mood to immediately approve another increase.
But several supervisors noted that any action taken in June or November would come too late for the county to effectively plan how to use the added revenues during the next fiscal year.
In addition to selecting a date for the proposed election, the supervisors also must decide a number of other related issues, including the length of time that the half-cent sales-tax increase would be in effect. County administrators have recommended that the increase be maintained for 10 years, a period during which officials estimate that the added tax would generate about $1.6 billion for new jails and courts.
County planners have projected that $800 million is needed to build new jails and courtrooms, with additional annual operating costs of $270 million.
At Monday's meeting, Bailey suggested that the tax increase be limited to only eight years, pointing out that that period would be sufficient to raise more than $800 million and arguing that the shorter duration might make the proposal more acceptable to voters. The agency, however, favored the 10-year period, and even Bailey acknowledged later that the extra funds raised during the two additional years "would give us more leeway" to meet future criminal justice needs.
Under state legislation approved last year, only a simple majority vote would be needed to pass the proposed tax increase. In November, 1986, a proposed five-year, half-cent sales tax for jails and courts that was placed on the ballot by the supervisors failed when it received 51% of the vote, far short of the then-required two-thirds majority.