Santa Cruz County residents will consider a half-cent sales tax on the March 5 ballot which, if approved by a simple majority, will fund wildfire protection programs, as well as public safety, road and park improvements and other services.
The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously agreed to bring the item to voters, which would also be used for programs to help frontline workers such as teachers, first responders and nurses live in the county.
County officials estimate the tax—which applies to businesses in the unincorporated areas of the county—would generate $10 million in annual revenues.
It would not apply to “essential” services such as groceries, prescription medicine, diapers and feminine hygiene products.
The tax would bring the county’s 9% tax rate closer to that of its incorporated cities. Businesses in Watsonville and Scotts Valley charge 9.75%, while Santa Cruz charges 9.25%.
Santa Cruz County only receives about $550 per resident in property and sales taxes. For comparison, Santa Clara County gets almost $11,000 per resident from property tax revenue.
A handful of people spoke in opposition to the measure during the brief hearing.
“We have so many families in this county that are one paycheck away from homelessness,” said David Schwartz, who is running for the Second District seat in the March 5 election. “If we add this cost to their daily living, we might create more homelessness, and that’s a big problem we have already.”
Instead, Schwartz said, the county should look into other revenue sources.
Supervisor Justin Cummings disputed claims that the county has mismanaged its finances in the past.
“It’s not as if we’re being fiscally irresponsible here,” he said. “The county has done a great job of managing the public’s money well. What’s happening is that over time costs have gone up, the costs to provide services have gone up, and we’re expanding the services that we provide, and in order to pay for all that, we have to find a revenue source, and this sales tax revenue can greatly help us as we do that.”
The item was brought to the supervisors after the CZU fires and the storms from 2017 cost the county $242 million, a number equal to 115% of the county’s annual $210 million general fund revenue.
“The county is being asked to do more than ever before,” said Supervisor Manu Koenig. “The county is really left holding the bag from the externalities from the climate crisis and the housing crisis.”