manipulation, SLO officials promote sales tax increase

October 15, 2020

Richard Schmidt

OPINION by RICHARD SCHMIDT

Eight reasons to vote for SLO’s Measure G in a Tribune op-ed. Eight reasons in New Times. Eight reasons in the pro-G ballot argument. The crucial words are the same.

This was carefully planned. Your tax dollars financed it. Consultants prepared the “eight reasons” after polling us repeatedly to discover how to sell a new tax. This culminates 15 years‘ shenanigans by our city to “educate” us to raise our sales tax. Now, after two half-cent taxes with built-in termination dates, the city goes for gold – a new tax three times as large and lasting forever.

The wording of the pro-G arguments – and wording on the ballot itself — is the product of consultants who emphasize their “poll-tested” scientific messaging must not be messed with.

I stumbled on this saga of city mischief the last time we had a sales tax election. As I poked through documents, my head began to spin, and I wrote a definitive article, “Measure Y and Measure G Propaganda Machine.” Google it. The activity described there continues in spades to today.

The tax election game goes like this. City staff hires consultants. There are polling consultants and election consultants. The pollsters start phoning us, seeking to find what we like our tax dollars to finance. Open space is always on top, a new police station a non-contender.

Polling’s Phase 2 weeds out items with lukewarm support from those with stronger support. Consultants also research a particularly odious form of manipulation, determining what city services they can threaten to cut to snare our votes. They end up with a list of things we like and things we’re scared to lose.

Then come election consultants who poll-test various wordings and combinations of things, to find what “messaging” is “most effective.” They prepare strategy plans, “educational materials,” articles to plant as op-eds in newspapers, publicity releases, ballot arguments, and ballot wording. They imply the tax will finance things pollsters found we like, or things we’re scared to lose – despite the fact all such implications are meaningless because general tax funds cannot be allocated to any specific use. But the implications do what they’re for – like convincing voters who don’t like creek pollution Measure G will stop creek pollution.

Finally, when the city places the tax measure on the ballot and it becomes illegal for the city to continue “educating” us, the consultant’s stuff is handed to a “citizens committee” that runs a campaign. This year’s committee is a cabal of developers and Chamber of Commerce types engaged in mutual back rubbing with city staff. Developers expect the city to pick up costs of development previously borne by developers – a use of Measure G revenue not mentioned in the propagandists’ list of uses. The Chamber got front-seat influence in determining how Measure G income gets spent. Of course, voters aren’t supposed to know this, and the local news media oblige by not reporting it.

If you’re thinking this endless consultant work sounds costly, you’re right. To date the city has spent close to a million dollars on consultants — to convince us, for example, if we don’t vote right the city will have to cut paramedic services. Then, after such expenditures, the city cries it lacks funds. Think about all the good stuff those consultant payments could have done if applied to actual civic needs.

What the consultants emphasize to the city is to stick to their points and stick to their wording.

So the discussion around Measure G gets weird.

Important things are left out. For example, our current sales tax continues till 2023, so there’s no rush to replace it. But, we are told, it is urgent we act NOW! If we don’t, we may wake up to not having a fire department.

Also left out of the discussion is Proposition 15, on the same ballot as G. Prop 15 would reassess business properties to produce a revenue windfall for local governments and school districts – upwards of $7 billion yearly. Polls suggest a good chance it will pass. Cities salivate over this. San Jose expects $77 million. SLO? Our city manager told me he has no idea what Prop 15 means for SLO. Really? More believable is that any mention of Prop 15’s potential windfall interferes with the official consultant-designed line about the urgency of passing G, so mum’s the word.

After city staff decided to go for G, something unexpected happened – Covid 19. That, however, became campaign manna from Heaven. It enabled a new claim – that the city was so financially devastated by Covid we must urgently triple our sales tax forever, right away. This was a tried and proven manipulative ploy. In previous sales tax elections the city moaned the state had stolen its money, even though the annual amount taken at the time of the first tax election was equivalent to a mere rounding error in the city’s huge budget, and at the time of the second election was distant history, but still played well with voters who knew no better. The city has learned: we’re nice people, and if told a monster has eaten city finances, we run to the rescue, never suspecting we’re being manipulated.

Of course, tripling the tax in response to Covid is really dumb economics. The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, which Nobel economist Paul Krugman warns could drag on for years, is a terrible time for any consumer tax increase. Every penny middle class and lower consumers must pay in sales tax is a penny less to spend supporting the economy – a fact beyond the ken of affluent G campaigners who talk about how little it will add to their $100 restaurant bills.

The city has skirted the law by continuing to “educate” us during the campaign. Recent water bills contained consultant-written propaganda, including the lie Measure G “would provide funding to ensure … [we have] firefighter-paramedics … [to] respond to fire…” No ethical city makes this sort of mean, nonsensical threat to manipulate its voters. I call this a “lie” because Measure G revenue cannot be pre-designated for any use, not even fire-fighting, because this is a general tax that can be used for any purpose, like the lavish $15,000 per month pension of a former city manager.

After that mailer, the city sent a second slick-paper piece, ostensibly to tell us how to vote by mail – a subject not even in city purview but a county function already dealt with by others – but actually being more pro-G propaganda – ethically tenuous at best and possibly illegal.

It seems in this election game, even the city’s 15 years of costly polling, trolling, misleading, and manipulating us is insufficient, that legal and ethical boundaries must be crossed. And consultants paid. And city treasuries filled so staff has lots of money to advance their agendas.


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Gramelin

Excellent explanation of what goes on. Great article Richard!


Paso_citizen

100% agree. Paso Robles city has used much the exact same messaging to ‘convince’ the voters to approve a 1% sales tax increase (Measure J-20). Thousands of our tax-payer dollars spent on surveys and multiple mailings stating of all the many ‘reasons’ why the city ‘needs’ more of our money.

I just hope that many voters have seen through this charade and either have or will vote against J-20. Same thing should be done on Measure G in SLO. Vote tax increase down. Cities have to stop using the citizens as their personal piggybank.

This election is the last, best chance to make it clear that cities need to come up with better ways.

As has been said before – Pigs will not stop eating as long as someone keeps putting slop in the trough – Now is our time to stop filling the trough. Vote NO on all tax increase measures.


horse_soldier

Measure G, G for into the general pot? No accountability, no sunset date.

No, NO, NO!


kayaknut

Without measure G how else are they going to be able to pay those outrageous salaries and benefits and give raises?


Slosum

Good job Richard. But don’t use Paul Krugman to bolster your argument. He’s always 180 degrees wrong, which is a qualification for a Nobel Prize. In any case, vote NO on G!…. as well as any of the socialist cabal up for re-election.


Michael A.

They are pulling the same load of crap in Oxnard. The rate is 7.75% now, the want to raise it to 9.25%. “everything will fall apart” if not approved. A 1.5 cent increase in sales tax is a whopping 19.35% increased tax on everything you buy. Only in California with those crazy ass pensions.


mary margaret

I doubted that a retired city manager of SLO was making $15,000 a month in retirement so I looked it up. It’s actually more than that & SLO did not provide the $$$ spent on benefits for the couple.

Here’s the link:

https://transparentcalifornia.com/pensions/search/?q=kenneth+hampian


Thank you for writing this Mr. Schmidt. The Mayor, City Council, and administrators have not been fiscally responsible. The City owes $175,000,000 in pension debt on which we’re paying interest of $1,100,000 a month AND they keep giving themselves raises. All they care about is feathering their own nests; it’s just like Washington D.C.


I’ve decided to vote NO. They need to cut the fat!


Michael A.

No retired public employee needs or deserves 179.000 annual pension. That’s pigs at the trough levels.


slo-to-load

I agree that high of a pension for a city manager is ridiculous. However, it is no doubt contractual, already in the budget, and the city wouldn’t be paying it if they weren’t required to by law. The solution for this particular issue is to get the city to stop paying city managers so much. Hampian will keep getting his fat cat pension whether the tax increase passes or not.


derasmus

Well said.There needs to be some reality put back in employee compensation. Look up, transparent California website for the numbers in SLO, for top managers the compensation is breathtaking!


All managers (Dept.heads) should take a 15 percent pay cut

All first line supervisors a 6 percent pay cut.

Leave non supervisory (Rank and file) staff alone

Overtime, especially for safety staff, should be curtailed and paid in CTO time (compensated time off) not dollars.


All safety staff (police and fire) should have to contribute at least 13 percent to PERS. If the unions squawk tell them they are welcome to look elsewhere for employment as I’m sure there are many well qualified folks that would like to take their place.


Further the retirement formula for public safety should be 2.7 percent at age 55.(NOTE: for years it has been 3 percent at 50 with a 90 percent cap).


Misc employees should be paying 10 percent toward PERS and formulas should be in the neighborhood of 2 percent at age 60.


Eliminate unnecessary positions;

Sustainability manager

Any tourism or promotion staff (let the chamber and others absorb those duties.)

Park Rangers – (let public works and park staff absorb those duties)

The City should also sell some of those expensive pieces of equipment and vehicles like 4×4 3/4 ton trucks with big winches mounted on the front. This is not Yosemite, they don’t really need that stuff. Proceeds should go toward pension obligations.


This city is heading for a fiscal cliff and they need to stop kicking the can down the road. They need to serious.


If they did these things, made some real, transparent concessions, I might vote yes. As it stands I am voting NO.


slocorruptionhater

None of your suggestions will ever happen, so vote NO on Measure G. The 3 percent at 50 formula is a joke! Take a City like Anaheim, since 2013 they have moved to 2.7 at 57 formula for safety employees. Their unfunded pension liability for all employees is about $55M for a City that is about 5 times the size of SLO. The ONLY way to reign in expenditures at SLO is to limit its revenue. Period.


ActaNonVerba

NO on Measure G!