ESCONDIDO — After years of discussion and a previous failed attempt, Escondido voters will see a new ¾-cent sales tax measure on the November ballot.
The City Council approved a ¾-cent sales tax ballot measure late last month aiming to use additional funds to maintain and improve public safety services throughout the city. The council’s approval marked the second attempt to get a tax measure on the ballot after missing the ballot in 2020.
Staff had originally proposed a one-cent tax measure, which tested well among more than 1,000 voters in a survey conducted this year. Approximately 63% of respondents indicated they would favor a one-cent sales tax increase that would remain in effect until ended by voters.
Through a compromise, the City Council passed by a 4-1 vote the ¾-cent sales tax measure to end in 15 years. To get the measure on the ballot, the council needed at least four votes.
Councilmember Joe Garcia voted against the ballot measure.
“After reviewing the staff report and all the materials with it, at this time I don’t feel there are enough protections of the taxpayers here in Escondido to move forward with this,” Garcia said.
City officials have debated a sales tax increase for some time in response to its budget woes. The city’s state-required public employee unfunded pension liability fund obligates Escondido to pay between $15 and $22 million annually until 2044.
A ¾-cent sales tax increase would raise Escondido’s current sales tax rate of 7.75% to 8.5% and would generate approximately $21 million annually. At least 50% of that would be used to support police and fire; to maintain infrastructure, parks and buildings; and to address homelessness.
The council also voted to add language to the ballot measure that would cite reducing the city’s pension obligations with the funds as well. Garcia, Morasco and Deputy Mayor Tina Inscoe felt that adding the language would be more transparent to voters.
Adding the language went against recommendations from both staff and True North Research, a third-party consultant that conducted the sales tax survey, which indicated the move would be risky because the language was untested.
Voters in the survey also indicated that reducing pension costs with the funds was on the lower end of their priorities. Instead, residents identified wanting additional public safety efforts, infrastructure improvements and actions addressing homelessness to improve Escondido’s quality of life.
Mayor Paul McNamara and Councilmember Consuelo Martinez were both opposed to adding the language; however, they voted in favor to get four votes.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea, because it’s untested,” Martinez said.
McNamara questioned how the tax would work to reduce pension obligations when the city is already required to pay it.
“We’re not really reducing the pension debt,” the mayor said. “It’s a bill — something we have to pay.”
Meanwhile, without additional revenue, the city could be forced to make cuts to police, fire, road maintenance, homeless encampment cleanups and other service areas, cuts that McNamara said would impact the city’s quality of life.