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Council OKs $24K to survey voters on sales tax increase

DEL MAR — Council members at the June 20 meeting authorized spending more than $24,000 to find out if it is worth adding a ballot measure that would raise the sales tax by 1 percent to the November election.

For that price they could include up to 75 questions on a survey but they agreed to keep it simple and focus on what council members need to know as they consider the proposed increase, which could add about $2 million annually to the general fund.

The idea to raise the sales tax, which is currently 8 percent, came from the city’s advisory Finance Committee when tasked with finding funding for utility pole undergrounding.

It is estimated that about 70 percent of the sales tax is paid by visitors, with around 40 percent coming from people who attend events at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

So city officials don’t consider the increase a burden on residents. Businesses owners, however, do not support the proposal, especially as they face a mandated minimum wage increase.

The City Council approves a contract to gauge voter support for a 1 percent sales tax increase that could be used to fund, among other projects, citywide utility pole undergrounding. Photo by Bianca Kaplanek
The City Council approves a contract to gauge voter support for a 1 percent sales tax increase that could be used to fund, among other projects, citywide utility pole undergrounding. Photo by Bianca Kaplanek

Council members initially decided to hold off on the bump because of looming election deadlines and an already crowded ballot.

They changed course a few weeks later and decided to use the tax for several projects, including implementing the Shores master plan and downtown streetscape improvements, because that would require passage by a simple majority.

A tax used for a specific purpose needs to be approved by two-thirds of the voters.

Based on failed attempts to raise taxes in the past, council members agreed that if the tax increase isn’t successful in November it could be years before a similar measure could be put to the voters again.

A few weeks ago they decided to test the waters and asked staff to look into conducting a poll while residents move forward with community outreach and education efforts.

Assistant City Manager Mark Delin said because of limited time — council members have until August to make a decision on ballot measures — it was difficult to conduct a full request for proposals process.

So staff contacted two local firms the city has used in the past.

Probolsky Research came back a $14,700 bid that would target up to 200 responses using a phone survey followed up with online efforts. The poll could include up to 20 questions and would have a margin of error of plus or minus 6.6 percent.

Council members awarded the contract to True North Inc., which is charging $21,725 to target about 400 respondents via phone, email and mail, with online follow-up.

The margin of error is plus or minus 4.8 percent with a 95 percent level of confidence.

Despite the higher cost, staff recommended True North based on the belief that “a mail-based component is important to help reach Del Mar’s diverse likely voter population.”

According to the staff report, the number of responses will improve the ability of the city to derive meaningful and statistically reliable guidance on whether it should go forward with the tax, how best it should phrase the ballot language and how the arguments in favor of the proposition should be written.

The city will have to kick in an additional $2,500 for mailing costs.

Councilman Don Mosier opposed the initial vote a few weeks ago to order a survey, but approved the contract to collect data. But he was still skeptical.

“The timing’s bad,” he said, noting the survey will likely be conducted after the July 4 weekend. “You’re asking people who haven’t been thinking about all these issues to think about it during vacation time.

“I’m afraid that whatever information you get is not going to be highly predictive of what might happen in November,” he added. “And you’ve got the business community against it. … If you want to get a temperature you need to survey the businesses.

“My fear is that we’re going to push this through too fast, the community’s not going to be with us, the opposition’s going to get organized … and it’s going to go down like most tax measures we’ve tried in the past and then we’re going to be stuck for another couple of years, Mosier said.

“I have big qualms about doing this survey so quickly in this short timeframe and getting sufficient guidance to put this on the ballot,” he added.

City Manager Scott Huth said the survey could be completed in time to make the ballot “but we need to move quickly.”

Based on past experiences, he also urged council members to let the professional surveyors “do what they do best.”

He said when the staff or policymakers get too involved in the mechanics “the outcome is questionable and you can get called on the outcome because of your involvement.”

The cost to put the measure on the November ballot is estimated to be between $8,000 and $15,000.