Sacramento Transit Authority, This is No Time to Move Ahead with a Tax Increase

W. Bruce Lee
President of the Sacramento Taxpayers Association.

Over the last month, the country has come to a complete standstill. 

In early March, at least ten California counties, including Sacramento, ordered their residents to “shelter in place” due to COVID-19: no one is to leave their place of residence except for absolute necessities. Soon after, Governor Gavin Newsom extended a shelter-in-place order to the entire state at least until May.

 Businesses are shutting down; people are losing their jobs.  Hospitals in parts of the country are overcrowded, under-resourced and understaffed.  Infection rates are rising. The stock market is plummeting.

 And yet, despite the nationwide shutdown — despite Sacramento City and County themselves demanding individuals and businesses stop their lives, hunker down, and wait for this nightmare to end — the Sacramento Transportation Authority (STA) decided their monthly Board meeting last March 18th was simply too important to wait.

 What did the STA discuss at this meeting? Perhaps some sort of emergency plan for assistance and aid related to the recent mass hysteria?

 No.  The main item on the agenda was the tentative adoption of Measure A, this year’s expenditure plan and to put it more simply – a brand new sales tax increase of one-half cent for Sacramento County residents.

 If you weren’t aware of any of this, I wouldn’t blame you.  How can anyone be expected to focus on funding for local transportation projects in the midst of everything that is happening?  But instead of canceling or postponing the meeting — just like seemingly every other government agency and business has done with large events — the STA pressed on with a hybrid meeting with three directors present and others joining by conference call, with decidedly limited participation from the public.  Email was the only available form of public comment, and those comments were not read aloud.

 And if you’re now thinking that it seems a bit surreptitious to hold a vote on a tax increase at a time when most of the Sacramento community (and the rest of the world) is mainly concerned with surviving a pandemic, then I couldn’t blame you for that, either.

 The expenditure plan was tentatively adopted by a 13-3 vote, despite overwhelming opposition from the public.  (It was briefly stated that the agency received far more emails in opposition than in support of approximately 435 oppose to 65 in favor.)  However, there are still a few hoops to jump through, of course.  The plan was only tentatively adopted as it will still go before the County Board of Supervisors and all local City Councils for approval (the Sacramento City Council already approved the plan at the end of March), and eventually it must appear before voters.

 In the middle of this, we should at least be thankful to the three STA Directors (County Supervisor Sue Frost, Rancho Cordova Councilmember Garrett Gatewood, and Citrus Heights Councilmember Steve Miller), who were able to display some common sense and vote against the plan.  Supervisor Frost went the extra mile and argued that the public comments should read aloud — but the rest of the Board apparently saw no need to even maintain the illusion that the public played a significant part in its decision making at this time.

 Certainly, the County needs to make essential infrastructure upgrades.  It would be silly to deny the importance of public transportation, road safety and all such things to our community’s wellbeing.  But this only underscores the significance of placing these issues under severe public scrutiny. 

 To hold a STA meeting in this manner during the immediate confusion regarding the COVID 19 crisis and the shelter in place order issued the day before on March 17th made no sense.  Even Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg commented on March 17th that, “A directive is an order by another name, and it’s crucial that we all follow it.  This is what we need to do to flatten the curve … It will still allow people to engage in … essential functions … grocery shopping, to keep essential medical appointments …. As long as it’s a safe distance from others.”  

 Now, it was general knowledge that the March 18th STA Board meeting was going to be packed, including a variety of advocacy groups.  Yet, the STA still held the meeting. 

 And, interestingly enough at the virtual last moment, in a very unusual action, Mayor Steinberg replaced Sacramento Council Member Larry Carr as a director on the STA Board.  Carr had represented Sacramento for months on the STA negotiations regarding this half-cent sales tax increase, but as of March 18th, Steinberg took that role for himself.  I guess Mayor Steinberg thought this meeting was “essential.” 

 Furthermore, the STA’s rush to action with such a conspicuous lack of public participation on March 18th is a sad situation.  This matter could have been postponed until April or later, to provide time for the government agency to adapt to these new shelter-in-place protocols and allow citizens the opportunity sort things out while still being involved.

 And, there is even no need to rush this to the November 2020 ballot for voters when many citizens are simply trying to survive.  On March 17th even the Bay Area $100 billion “mega measure” of a one cent sales tax increase for transportation was pulled off the November ballot.

 Perhaps the STA should focus on the best use of its existing half-cent sales tax which lasts until 2039, rather than rushing to add another sales tax increase.  Plus, wasn’t Senate Bill 1 (Beall) of 2017 supposed to double the revenue from the state to our cities for street maintenance needs with the 12 cent per gallon tax?

 Going forward, the STA must revise its approach to this plan.  Residents should be able to maintain full access to the decision-making processes that affect their lives in the long-term — but not before they deal with the pandemic that threatens them today.

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