GRASS VALLEY, Calif. October 16, 2023 – By a unanimous vote, the Grass Valley City Council declared a fiscal emergency “due to the lack of necessary funding for fire personnel and land management required to combat wildfires and extreme weather conditions.” This was a necessary step to place a general sales tax measure on the March 5, 2024 ballot. The City Council will vote on placing the tax measure on the primary ballot at their next meeting on October 24th.
Only six members of the public commented on the proposed tax, with comments ranging from questions about Measure E spending, contractors questioning tax implications, suggestions on best practises for vegetation management, suggestions to use other grant funding and a comment that reducing the proposed tax from 1/2 percent to 3/8th was “a step in the correct direction.”
How we got here
Last Tuesday, after several months of council meetings and sparsely-attended town hall meetings, the City Council gave direction to staff to prepare a ballot measure for the November 2024 election. Then, a new agenda was published last Thursday with the sole item of reconsidering the March date.
This time around, councilmembers asked questions about the funding allocations, with Councilmember Tom Ivy pointing to the long-term green waste solution, “Biomass is one solution that can help get rid of some of our green waste. It’s an expensive and long question to answer. So $50,000 [a year] is talking about some entry level studies to see if it’s even a question that we can ask as a region.” City manager Tim Kiser agreed, saying “Any biomass plant right now is a public private partnership. It’s not something that a small public agency can do on their own. But anything we can do to help them move forward, and technology is changing. I mean, there are looking at burn plants that deal with purified water to create hydrogen generators, that type of stuff too.”
Vice Mayor Hilary Hodge clarified grant funding uses, “I will say, and I think this is really important, that occasionally we will get grant money from the state for a project that we applied for. If we are awarded grant money for a project, it’s non fungible to other projects. So you may see larger line items for example for parks capital that may include some state funding that we got a grant for. If we applied for a grant for a unicorn petting zoo to be put in the city limits – I’m trying to use something that would never come up to the council – we would have to make the unicorn petting zoo. We couldn’t spend the money on more firefighters.”
Mayor Jan Arbuckle summed up the months of meetings, stating “Make a decision one way or the other is what I keep hearing over and over again and from people from all over in the city limits, outside the city limits, from all over. So putting a tax measure on the ballot is merely saying we want to give the voters of Grass Valley the opportunity to control their destiny. That’s what we’re doing.”
The motion to adopt the expenditure plan and declare a fiscal emergency passed by a 5-0 vote.
What will the ballot measure be?
The ballot measure would ask city residents to vote Yes or No on a 3/8 percent (.00375) sales tax increase. The tax measure would be a general tax measure, requiring 50% plus one vote of ballots cast in the election to pass.
The tax measure would be in effect for seven years and sunset after that, unless voters agree to extend it via a new ballot measure. A citizens oversight committee and an expenditure plan are also included in the ballot measure.
General tax measure vs Special tax measure
The city council has opted for a general tax measure, which has a lower threshold for passing (50% plus one vote) than a special tax measure which requires a two-thirds voter approval.
Revenues from a general tax “live” in the general fund and can theoretically be used for any lawful purposes other general fund monies can be used. However, the citizens oversight committee is designed to prevent the use of these tax dollars for non-measure expenditures. However, a future city council could allocate the funds differently.
March vs November
Grass Valley’s election cycle is normally synced with the November general election. But waiting until November would delay receiving any revenue from the proposed tax – if it passes – until 2025. To go outside the normal election cycle, the city council had to declare the fiscal emergency.
If the measure appears on the March ballot both Grass Valley and Nevada City will attempt to pass sales tax increases for wildfire mitigation. Nevada City will vote on placing their measure on the March ballot (their normal election cycle) during their next meeting on Oct. 25th. Their tax measure will be a special tax, as opposed to Grass Valley’s general tax.
What would the tax fund?
At tonight’s meeting, a slightly revised expenditure plan was presented and approved by city council.
Expenditure Plan 3/8 Percent (.00375) Sales Tax increase
(per the agenda packet)
50%/50% Split between Resiliency and Vegetation Mitigation ($2.55 Million+/- to be generated annually)
Resiliency – 50% of $2.55 M or $1.25+/- M Annually
- Move Closer to National Standards by increasing from two to three Firefighters per engine ($900K+/-)
- $250k to Operate a Veg. Management, Education& Inspection Program (up to 3 Personnel)
- $100K Annual Fire Vegetation / Green Waste Pickup/Drop-off
Vegetation Mitigation – $1.26+/- M (Contracted Work and Grants)
- $1 M – Fuel Reduction (140+/- Acres of Fuel Reduction around the City)
- $250K Creating Grants for residences/ businesses for assistance in Fuel Reductions (Priority on hardships and low income)
- $50k/yr. for long-term green waste solutions
Editor’s note: The math above is from the agenda packet, we realize items listed under the vegetation mitigation really add up to $1.3 million. The presentation given tonight listed the correct total.
The City Council will have to approve the text of the ballot measure at their next meeting on October 24th. Any local tax measure to be listed on the March ballot has to be submitted to the Elections Office by November 1st, according to state law.
Staff was also tasked to get an estimated cost for this special election. While the staff report lists $100,000 or more in election cost, no estimate had been requested from the Elections Office for the March 2024 ballot inclusion.
Only when/if the City Council approves the text of the ballot measure, the date of the election, the amount of the sales tax increase and its proposed use will be formally set.
Then, it will be up to voters within Grass Valley city limits to decide.