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Sales-Tax Hike Vote Looms as Redding City Council Mulls Fiscal Emergency Declaration

When it comes to public safety in Redding, there are two options: lower expectations or raise revenues.

Both the City Council and the city manager support the latter option, and using proceeds from a sales-tax hike to make it happen.

At the March 6 City Council meeting, we’ll learn whether voters will get that chance in the June primary or the November general election. Assuming it’s a half-cent tax hike, City Manager Barry Tippin said the extra five months would cost Redding an estimated $3 million to $5 million.

Councilman Adam McElvain will wield the swing vote.

The council held a special meeting Thursday to focus on the public safety situation (some background is available here).

At issue: to place the tax-hike measure on the June ballot, the council needs to declare a fiscal emergency; such a declaration requires a unanimous vote of the council. A general tax hike requires approval from a simple majority of Redding voters; a special tax, dedicated to public safety expenses, requires a two-thirds majority, which is a much higher threshold.

At Thursday’s meeting, McElvain said he does not oppose putting a sales tax measure on the ballot, but “a fiscal emergency is a pill I can’t swallow.” McElvain said he does not want to see Redding suffer the public relations hit such a declaration would cause. “It sends a message of failure,” McElvain said, and it will discourage investment in the city and make it harder to hire police officers and firefighters into lateral positions.

McElvain’s position drew a rather sharp rebuke from Mayor Kristen Schreder. “I think that’s pretty irresponsible, personally” she said of McElvain’s PR concerns. The fiscal emergency is real, she said, and so is the fear and frustration repeatedly expressed by citizens. “This is beyond a public relations problem. It’s a public safety problem,” she said.

During the meeting, Police Chief Roger Moore and Fire Chief Gerry Gray explained their respective dilemmas. In 2007, Redding had 119 sworn officers and 10 community service officers and the average response time was about 8.5 minutes, Moore said. There were 86,000 calls for service.

Ten years later, the city 105 officers and four CSOs, calls increased to almost 100,000 and the response time on high-priority calls (rape, robbery, shots fired, etc.) lengthened to about 14.4 minutes. On any one shift, there are seven officers and one supervisor responsible for the safety of 90,000 people spread over 60 square miles.

Gray said five of the city’s eight engines have two firefighters aboard, “and that’s pretty problematic.” Engines in similar-sized cities are staffed with three firefighters.

During a typical first-alarm fire, Gray’s department sends four engines, a ladder truck and a battalion chief. “We have to pull four districts’ worth of engines because there’re not enough personnel, and that happens 100 to 120 times a year. During those times, the city will rely on delayed responses.”

A two-alarm fire is even worse, Gray said, and leaves a much greater swath of Redding uncovered. Such responses happen about 50 to 60 times a year and last from three to six hours—periods of time when “we would be challenged to put out a dumpster fire.”

Those who spoke at Thursday’s meeting sided with Tippin and council members and said they would support a sales tax hike to beef up police and firefighter ranks and, just as importantly, help Shasta County increase its jail capacity.

Even Dale Ball and Shannon Hicks, who have been frequent council critics, agreed on the need for a tax. “I’m not a big tax guy,” Hicks said, adding that he’s impressed with the work of Redding police who have been “overwhelmed with repeat offenders, and nothing will change until we add additional jail space.”

“I’m far from a tax guy myself,” agreed Ball, but “the only way I see moving forward is spending. You’ve got to pay for public safety.”

Anderson resident and Shasta County Supervisor Les Baugh, who said he was addressing the council as the owner of some Redding commercial property, said he supports a sales tax hike and noted that Anderson’s fortunes have soared after that city’s voters approved a tax hike to support public safety.

“I will gladly shop here and pay the bill,” Baugh said, adding that Anderson’s police force is now at its highest staffing level in the city’s history.

Redding voters soundly defeated Measure D, a proposed half-cent sales tax hike, in November 2016, and many voters said they simply didn’t trust the council to spend the projected $11 million a year only on public safety.

Councilman Brent Weaver said he feels progress and cooperation on the council has helped earn some of that trust back. “Nobody wants a tax, but the public I’m in touch with wants relief from what we’re living with. It’s unconscionable to me that we wouldn’t give the community an opportunity to vote on it.”

Redding will learn more about that vote next month.