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Voters asked to hike sales tax
October 09, 2012, 05:00 AM By Michelle Durand Daily Journal Staff

The county’s half-cent sales tax measure — clouded by anti-jail opponents who believe it a sneaky way to fund a new facility and opponents who decry using public money to fund seismic upgrades at a private religious hospital — is a much-need infusion of money toward maintaining residents’ quality of life, according to backers.

The tax would generate $60 million annually for the next 10 years and supporters told the Daily Journal the goal of the "Save our Services” campaign is exactly that — keeping parks open, maintaining public safety and, yes, even keeping private Seton Hospital open and available for low-income residents in the north end of the county. A still shaky economy and increasing cuts from the state make the county’s job as the safety net provider tougher and there just isn’t enough money to fill every need, they argued.

"Everywhere we look people are looking at us to help them out,” said Adrienne Tissier, president of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.

But opponents say the county needs to get its own house in order and rein in employee costs before putting its hand out on Election Day.

"The county is overspending,” said Harland Harrison, chair of the Libertarian Party of San Mateo County. "The question is also where the money is going to go.”

The Board of Supervisors would have complete say over how the proceeds are used because it is a general tax and legally can’t mandate uses before the measure passes. However, a staff report before the board approved placing it before voters and the full text of the measure offers some possibilities — public safety, parks, jail staffing, gang and drug task forces and educational programs.

For instance, the need for housing, food and shelter isn’t lessening and the county’s youngest residents are most impacted, said Michael Garb, advocate for children’s services and abuse prevention.

"These children will be lost,” he said.

Another possibility is using some of the revenue to help Seton Medical Center in Daly City with mandated seismic upgrades to stave off closure in 2020. Seton provides a significant number of long-term care beds for Medi-Cal populations and losing them would have a domino effect on other health providers, including the San Mateo Medical Center which is already challenged by increasing client loads, waiting lists and an aging population, said Maya Altman, CEO of the Health Plan of San Mateo.

Altman said roughly 40 percent of the county’s safety net care is provided by Seton. Tissier isn’t sure how a partnership between the county and Seton would work but Altman said she wants a long list of commitments.

Harrison said Seton, as a member of Dignity Health, can limit services and restrict doctors based on religious beliefs. Public money has no place there, he said.

The pro-Measure A camp has raised just shy of $1 million of which more than $765,000 is from Seton Medical Center.

If approved, the measure would increase the sales tax in San Mateo County to 8.75 percent from 8.25 percent except in the city of San Mateo. The city of San Mateo’s sales tax would rise to 9 percent from the current rate of 8.5 percent due to a previous voter-approved measure. Half Moon Bay residents will also vote on a half-cent sales tax measure this November. Passage of the tax measure requires a simple majority and could not begin before April 1, 2013.

The request comes on the heels of a trio of tax measures on the June ballot to fund county services. Voters rejected two of the tax proposals but passed a 2.5 percent tax on car rentals, which is bringing in an estimated $8 million a year.

But while those taxes were aimed at visitors to San Mateo County, Measure A is focused on residents. The money can’t be taken by the state, ensuring that the funds stay local, proponents point out.

Tissier and the others dismissed arguments by the Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association the tax is regressive, hitting hardest the wallets of the low-income residents it aims to help. Garb said the majority of that population’s expenses are non-taxed items like food and Tissier pointed out that this group will also benefit from the tax when the proceeds are spent on safety net services.

Harrison disagrees.

"Don’t give it to them and take it back just so it looks like we’re giving them more,” he said.

Harrison and the SVTA believe county supervisors would rather taxpayers shoulder the fiscal woes rather than annoy public employee unions or tighten their own belt. The average full-time county employee plus benefits is more than $144,000 and warnings of cuts to crucial emergency services is akin to blackmail, according to the ballot argument against Measure A.

If the measure passes, officials will be back for more in the future, opponents state.

But Tissier and the others say the county has cut more than 500 positions, frozen salaries since 2008 and ask employees to pay more for health care.

"We’re not just putting our hand out,” Tissier said. "We’ve done a lot of work at home.”

Not every county supervisor was on board with placing a half-cent sales tax on the ballot, though.

In July, Supervisor Dave Pine was the lone holdout, instead unsuccessfully suggesting a quarter-cent sales tax.

Michelle Durand can be reached by email: or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 102.

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