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Encinitas exploring survey for sales tax increase

ENCINITAS — A council majority wants to survey residents in the coming months on whether they would support a tax increase to fund roads and other local infrastructure.

At Wednesday night’s meeting, council members voted 3-2 to request proposals from businesses that specialize in surveys and outreach for sales tax increases. Next month, the council will mull over whether to select one of those firms.

Councilwoman Lisa Shaffer, who voted in favor of the motion, said the city has a balanced operating budget, but additional sales tax revenue could fund needs like sidewalk repairs, a new lifeguard tower at Moonlight Beach and roadway construction in Leucadia, known as the streetscape.

“It’s no secret that we have a serious infrastructure deficit and we’ve been ignoring it for a long time,” Shaffer said.

This year, the city is due to collect $11.72 million in sales tax revenue. Encinitas’ tax rate is currently 8 percent, and bumping it up to 8.25 percent would bring in an additional $2.7 million annually, according to an estimate from city staff.

A sales tax survey and additional outreach could cost as much as $100,000, according to Catherine Lew, CEO of the research firm Lew Edwards. Because gathering data takes time, it would be a “quarter horse sprint” to place it on the upcoming November ballot, Edwards said.

Even if a sales tax increase fails, the council majority said the survey could help the city identify where residents would like city funding to be allocated.

Edwards noted cities like La Mesa and Vista have approved sales tax increases in recent years. Passing a general-purpose sales tax increase requires majority approval from voters.

Putting a sales tax increase on the ballot requires approval from four out of five councilmembers, but two councilmembers said they wouldn’t back such a measure.

Deputy Mayor Mark Muir said the city should learn to live within its means, adding that he doesn’t see a need for upping the sales tax rate.

Councilwoman Kristin Gaspar agreed, stating the city should take a closer look at cutting costs, rather than a tax hike.

“I want to make it very clear that you don’t have my support now, and you won’t have my support later in that four-fifths vote,” Gaspar said.

Councilman Tony Kranz said the city faces huge costs in the form of deferred road maintenance.

“You could lay off half the staff here and still have a lot of work to do before you handle deferred maintenance,” he said.

“I’m certainly for a good scrubbing of the organization chart to make sure we’re as efficient as possible, but meanwhile, I think this is a question that should be put to the public,” Kranz added.

Councilmembers raised the prospect of upping the sales tax last month as a possible way to pay for projects like the Pacific View property.