Legal snag on proposed sales tax possible
Senior Staff Writer
There could be a legal hang-up with the proposed Grass Valley sales tax initiative, expected for the November ballot.
The tax measure is taking the form of a voter initiative. But to make the ballot, it instead must be passed by a two-thirds vote of the City Council first, then win a two-thirds approval from voters before it can be legally valid, according to a memo from City Attorney Ruthann Ziegler to Grass Valley officials.
Michael Yaki, the lawyer for the group supporting the sales tax initiative, said Ziegler might be technically correct, but added that California Supreme Court rulings support the right of a citizen group to raise taxes without the city’s approval or inclusion in the process.
The sales tax initiative is being pushed by an independent group of former city council members – including Patti Ingram, Dee Mautino and Steve Enos – to help finance building the Dorsey Drive Interchange and repairing city streets. The City Council has not voted on the matter.
According to Ziegler’s memo, the senior tax auditor at the California State Board of Equalization said the city must have the two approval votes before his agency will collect and administer the tax. Ziegler could not be reached for comment.
A general ordinance can be simply passed by the council or turned over for voters’ approval, Ziegler’s memo said. But anything involving a sales tax must involve the two-step procedure.
Sales-tax group leader Ingram said she did not know about the memo or what would happen, but said there might be direction after Ziegler and Maki discuss the situation.
“With the support we have, we’ll do whatever we have to do to move it forward,” Ingram said.
The group was doing well with signatures and Ingram said they were shooting for 1,200 to qualify the tax initiative for the November ballot, far above the 824 needed.
The tax backers have 180 days from May 23 to get enough signatures for an election, but Ingram said they were shooting for a July 2 deadline to make the November ballot. Now, it’s unclear what will happen.
“The ball is in the court of the citizens moving the initiative forward,” said Mayor Mark Johnson, who added the council has not taken a position on the tax.
“It’s a challenging time to bring forth taxes, but the only way to get street repairs is through an initiative,” Johnson said. “I’m not sure this is the right time, but if enough people sign, maybe it is time.”
In a 1991 case, the state Supreme Court ruled the gasoline tax increase approved through Proposition 99 and created by voters did not need a two-thirds vote of the state legislature to put it on the ballot, Yaki said. A 2006 case which found an initiative could change a state’s agency’s powers also bolstered the case, he said.
“You don’t have to rely on local cities and counties to raise taxes if you think you need to do so yourself,” Maki said.
The group’s effort comes after the loss of Measure T, a 2006 sales tax on the ballot that some said lost a close race because too many projects were involved, including a downtown parking garage.
To contact Senior Staff Writer Dave Moller, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 477-4237.
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