Santa Cruz City Hall on Dec. 7, 2020.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Santa Cruz City Council axes sales tax increase, shares few changes on homelessness

One of the most contested items Tuesday night was a pending measure to increase the city’s sales tax from 9.25% to 9.75%. Councilmember Sandy Brown dissented, urging the council to find ways to help provide living wages for residents who are working jobs with substandard pay.

Those who hung around for public comment at Tuesday’s Santa Cruz City Council meeting might be eligible for sainthood.

During the 11-hour meeting (14 for councilmembers), which felt more in line with the opportune length for an opera than a local government meeting, councilmembers got hung up on several items for hourlong stretches at a time.

One of the most contested was the pending measure that would increase the city’s sales tax from 9.25% to 9.75% and bring in a projected $6 million in additional revenue. The council’s discussion clocked in near the three-hour mark before a motion and vote were ever made.

“All of our local businesses are struggling,” Mayor Donna Meyers said regarding the sales tax measure, adding that there was some “caution” from restaurant owners who were worried about competition in nearby communities that might have a lower sales tax, but no outright opposition to the proposal.

The tax measure required a consensus to pass and did not get enough support, with Councilmember Sandy Brown dissenting. Brown argued that there was not enough information available at this time to support the proposal and urged the council to find ways to help provide living wages for residents who are working jobs with substandard pay.

“We can hold a general meeting to discuss further,” Brown said, adding that additional conversations were needed over salaries and living wages. “Right now I cannot support this.”

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If passed, the sales tax measure would have gone to a public vote this November or during the pending gubernatorial recall election. In a bit of bureaucratic irony, the council decided to discuss alternatives to the sales tax measure and initiatives to help improve wages for residents in greater detail at a later date.

The disagreement set the mood for the remainder of the night. As the meeting continued at its marathon pace, the council remained caught in a no man’s land between peer compliments and everlasting counterpoints in lukewarm litigation.

“We had created an ad hoc committee to focus on this,” Councilmember Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson said. “And I’m sorry that in the short time we’ve been together there’s already distrust.”

After 9 p.m., the council was able to get to the evening agenda, highlighting a progress report on the downtown library’s adaptive reuse project and an update on the council’s homelessness initiative, Camping Services & Standards Ordinance (CSSO).

In a slide presentation, the council saw a few potential suggestions for the library site. The offering presented some new findings from a 515-person survey that largely supported creating a mix of affordable housing, park and open space. There was also some support for keeping the existing building and renovating it into a market or community hub.

Similarly, not much action or change has happened regarding the CSSO. The update, presented by City Planning Director Lee Butler, did address that five organizations have responded to the city’s Request for Qualifications for Verified Services but did not specify which, adding only that the RFQ is rolling, so interested parties can continue inquiring.

As some of the emergency COVID-19 relief and displacement at hotels and veterans’ halls comes to a close, Butler addressed a few proposed initiatives, including expanding the Paul Lee Loft Shelter in Santa Cruz, acquiring a Project Homekey property and incentives for landlords or property management companies interested in real estate partnerships to help with homelessness.

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“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Butler said.

Butler also highlighted an 85% increase in homelessness in the city before and during the pandemic. With state and federal programs to help displaced individuals and families affected by the pandemic coming to a close, he addressed concerns for a need for adequate housing or designated areas for individuals and families still in need of permanent housing.

The presentation did not address any immediate actions but outlined suggestions and ongoing proposals. The presentation did prompt the council to vote in favor of prioritizing public comment and adding staff to help facilitate finding designated areas for RVs and hygiene stations; however, no specific areas have been identified as of yet.

Earlier this month, the council amended the city’s camping ordinance to allow designated areas in parks and public spaces where camps are permitted.

“I want to make sure there’s some room for community engagement,” Councilmember Justin Cummings said, adding that due to the increased cost of living in Santa Cruz, the city should begin to expect more residents to be forced to live in their vehicles or RVs.

Cummings was adamant that the council should make time for public engagement on the topic, to help mitigate any concerns residents might have over the current ordinances and to avoid another TOLO situation.

Currently, the ordinance increased the number of RVs to park and house “occupants in religious assembly” from three to six and allows for three vehicles in business parking lots. The ordinance also allows RVs to occupy space in a residential driveway for an unlimited period of time; the previous statute was a maximum of three days.

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More agenda items of interest

  • Council approved RFPs for a bike-share program within the city and possibly through much of Santa Cruz County.
  • Council approved a motion to allow the city manager to execute a $508,812 consulting contract with Kimley-Horn in part of the Downtown Plan Expansion Project. In conjunction with that decision, the council approved plans to add staff to the project, time for community workshops and additional review after each input session.
  • Approval to add a resolution to the Nov. 2 ballot for a separate vote amending the city charter. If approved (by public vote), the resolution would allow 20% of general fund revenue from cannabis sales to be allocated for youth and early childhood development programs.