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Members of the San Marcos Fire Department pictured during training in 2021. The city is considering a new sales tax to support city services including public works and public safety. Courtesy San Marcos Professional Firefighters Association
Members of the San Marcos Fire Department pictured during training in 2021. The city is considering a new sales tax to support city services including public works and public safety. Courtesy San Marcos Professional Firefighters Association
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San Marcos considers sales tax to support city services

SAN MARCOS — Voters in San Marcos could see a half-cent or one-cent sales tax measure on the ballot this November as the city considers new revenue sources to maintain necessary service levels across departments. 

City officials introduced the idea of a sales tax earlier this month amid an ongoing budget deficit projected to continue into next year. The city began the 2023-24 fiscal year with $3.8 million in the red and has since reduced that deficit to around $2.4 million after adjusting expenditures in recent months. 

City Manager Michelle Bender now says operations have been consolidated as much as possible while maintaining the city’s current standard of service, including in public works and public safety. 

“We’ve slimmed down even more in the past few years, and we’re at the point where there is no more room to cut if we want San Marcos to be a clean, safe place to live,” Bender said at the council’s March 12 meeting.

The City Council has until August to decide whether to put the sales tax on the ballot. Council members said while they were not eager to increase taxes from the current 7.75% rate, a local measure would generate revenue entirely for the city, as opposed to other taxes imposed by the state and regional governments like SANDAG. 

“As a leader, it’s clear that San Marcos needs new revenue. We’ve determined that. If we want to continue our quality of life, we’re going to have to find new revenue or make a lot of reductions in expenses, and that’s not going to give us a good quality of life,” said Councilmember Sharon Jenkins. 

Sales tax measures require a simple majority of over 50% to pass. Results from an initial study by True North Research indicate that a half-cent sales tax has a good chance of moving forward if placed on the ballot. 

In an initial survey of around 800 San Marcos residents, 64% said they would either probably or definitely vote yes; 27% said they would probably or definitely vote no, and the rest were unsure. 

“At this initial ballot test, we’re sitting at about 14 points above the minimum needed for passage,” said True North President Dr. Timothy McLarney.  

The survey also illustrated which services residents want tax revenue to go towards. Top priorities were fixing potholes and maintaining city streets, keeping community areas like parks and trails clean and well-maintained, reducing trash and pollution, and improving traffic safety and congestion. 

Bender and City Council members said that in their conversations with residents about a tax, many have been supportive of increasing it to one cent rather than a half-cent to generate more revenue.  

McLarney said that based on his understanding of voters’ receptivity to sales taxes, the level of support would probably not vary much with a half-cent increase. 

A half-cent tax is projected to bring in around $11 million annually, while a one-cent rate could double this revenue to upwards of $20 million, Bender said. 

Several employees of the San Marcos Fire Department spoke in favor of the measure on March 12, stating that the department desperately needs more support. 

Firefighter Jeff McCloskey said the last time the department added a new fire station was in 2008 and that since then, the department’s call volume has doubled. Often, San Marcos Fire has to depend on ambulances from Vista and other surrounding areas to help respond to local emergencies. 

“Knowing we’ve had a lean work staff ever since I started here, at what point are we going to outpace our ability to properly serve our community?” said McCloskey. 

Residents also highlighted youth recreation opportunities and facilities as an essential feature of the quality of life in San Marcos. 

Dan Max, president of San Marcos Youth Baseball, said youth sports have suffered due to recent cuts and asked the council to remember the youth when considering who could benefit from a sales tax measure.

“I’ve already seen the effects of the cutbacks. I’ve already seen families having to explain to their kids that they can’t play baseball, they can’t play sports,” Max said. “Please, don’t forget the youth.” 

Looking ahead, consultant Team Civics will continue to share information with the public about the potential sales tax measure. Council members emphasized that gathering information from the public and being transparent will be extremely important. 

“Tonight is really not about decisions. It’s about getting the information; it’s about listening to what our residents have said,” said Mayor Rebecca Jones. “I want to make it as easy as possible to get feedback from residents.”

Nine of the 18 cities in San Diego County have their own local sales tax — Chula Vista, Del Mar, Solana Beach, Imperial Beach and National City each have a one-cent tax; El Cajon, Oceanside and Vista have a half-cent tax; and La Mesa has a 3/4-cent tax. 

The cities of Encinitas and San Diego are also considering placing a local one-cent sales tax before voters in November, and residents in Escondido have launched a ballot initiative for a one-cent tax.

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