by Leslie Layton
posted April 21
A mailer from the City of Chico with a survey to be returned by April 22 is a piece in a three-phase campaign to win support for a city-wide 1 percent sales tax. The survey asks city residents to rank their spending priorities in order of importance.
Chico is one of about eight “full-service” cities in the state that don’t have a local sales tax; it receives a small portion of state sales tax revenue only. Full-service cities provide public safety and other services.
ChicoSol was contacted by several readers when the Essential City Services survey began appearing in mailboxes earlier this month. The Chicoans said they didn’t know they were about to be surveyed and were confused by the mailer, which was signed by Matt Madden, Chico police chief who was then interim city manager.
ChicoSol then filed a Public Records Act request to find out how much the mailer cost.
The City responded to the PRA within the 10 days required by law, sending three documents, none of which were explicit about this particular cost. One of the documents, however, is the professional services agreement between the City of Chico and the Oakland firm CliffordMoss, which details how the firm will build support for a sales tax measure that will appear on the General Election ballot in November 2022.
A City staffer confirmed today that the City is in the third phase of a three-phase CliffordMoss program, and said many of the invoices involving the mailer costs haven’t yet been submitted. The contract between the City and CliffordMoss says the entire phase 3 — including a mailing to “listen, inform and engage,” stakeholder meetings and virtual town halls — may cost $32,500. The bill for the entire contract is not to exceed $91,500.
The survey struck some ChicoSol readers as so superficial it was meaningless. One Chico resident, for example, was annoyed that police patrols were lumped in with firefighting in the same public safety category and she couldn’t separate the two. The mailer asks city residents to rank spending on public safety, homelessness, road maintenance, parks, conservation and economic “vibrancy” in order of importance.
Angie Dilg, management analyst for the City, said people can submit more elaborate responses by emailing the City at firstname.lastname@example.org and on this website.
“We want citizens to tell the city what’s important to them,” Dilg said. “The survey only [provides] so much information. We have gotten quite a lot of responses and are pleasantly surprised.”
Democratic Action Club Chair David Welch said the survey categories were too broad, but his wife returned it anyway. “It’s the kind of survey that, whoever compiles the results, can use it to justify whatever it is they want to do,” Welch said.
A 2019 city survey showed widespread support for a sales tax increase, and in September of last year, the City Council voted unanimously to place a sales tax measure on the ballot to help cover funding gaps for services.
If the measure is approved in November, it could increase revenue by $24 million to $27 million. The City’s Dilg said a presentation on the survey results will be made to the Council.
Welch believes it would be a mistake to place a sales tax measure on the ballot in November even though, he says, the city probably does need the revenue it would produce.
“No one trusts this Council to spend the money wisely,” Welch said, adding that there’s a sense that additional revenue would be spent on more police. “It will get clobbered this year and go down to terrible defeat.”
Democrats will likely be 48% of the City’s registered voters in the General Election, according to CliffordMoss, with Republicans at 30% and others at 22%.
The firm alluded to a lack of trust between the Council and voters in its proposal submitted to the City in November. In that proposal, it talked about pre-pandemic polling two years earlier.
“81% of voters agreed that after the Camp Fire, the city required more funds to deal with the aftermath. 71% of voters however were concerned that funds would be going to the general fund, as there seems to be a lack of trust between your voters and the city council, despite largely approving of individual city departments.”
The proposal said 89% of voters wanted infrastructure improvements.
CliffordMoss promised the City, “Deliberate, Ongoing Attention to Skeptical Voters and Those Who Represent Them” in the proposal. “Customizing this stakeholder engagement here (think Chico Taxpayers Association) where listening EARLY helps deliver a return on investment down line” the proposal states.
Welch said that since that pre-pandemic polling, anger has built toward the Council on the part of both conservatives and liberals because of how it has spent taxpayer funds.
A sales tax is “troubling” to liberals anyway, he said, because it hits low-income residents harder than it does affluent residents by eating up a larger part of their income. He says liberals might otherwise support a sales tax because they’re anxious to see infrastructure improvements, as well as investment in low-income housing, but the trust factor will an obstacle at this point.
The Camp Fire destroyed a great deal of the region’s low-income housing, Welch pointed out, and demand for that housing isn’t going to be met by the private sector.
Welch recently posted on Facebook a lengthy list of vacancies in city staff positions, and the City’s website shows some 20 vacancies. Signing bonuses of between $10,000 and $20,000 are offered for wastewater operator, police officer and dispatcher positions.
If the City isn’t able to fill those positions, Welch said it either reflects that, “we are not paying enough or the work environment is very toxic.”
Earlier this week, an email from ChicoSol to the City’s human resources director Jamie Cannon produced an automated reply stating that Cannon “is on a leave of absence until further notice” and an interim human resources director has been appointed.
Leslie Layton is editor of ChicoSol.