Without a doubt, Hollister leaders have grossly mismanaged the budget and Measure T sales tax revenue since voters committed to the investment nearly five years ago. Despite those past transgressions – underscored by $500,000 in raises handed out immediately after its approval and a failure to wean off the city from needing the extra funds – voters would be penalizing themselves by opposing the Measure E extension on the Nov. 6 ballot.
If this were merely a referendum on past performance, on Hollister officials’ management of the Measure T funds these past years, we trust the voters would recognize how little leaders did to solve a staggering deficit problem. We trust they would decisively reject Measure E, which still might occur. Simply put, council members and City Manager Clint Quilter knew this tsunami was coming. They knew it for at least four years and sat dormant, hopeful, for much of that time. In the past nine months, as their Measure E campaign has built steam, most officials have acted as if they had their feet cut off, when in fact it was all a precisely timed ploy.
But this isn’t about the city manager or the majority of the council’s passive leadership and acceptance of failure. This is about the citizens of this city. It is about dealing with the present, not the past decade-plus of collective incompetence at City Hall, steered by Quilter and ratified by Councilman Doug Emerson and Gang. This is about maintaining a basic level of public safety, the core of local government, and working aggressively toward building revenue streams so the city can avoid a position of absolute fiscal ruin, where it is headed.
Most important, this is about trust in the democratic system. If we will ever get ourselves out of this economic nightmare and force local governments to operate efficiently, it will have to be at the polls and through the electoral process.
As voters decide on the sales tax, equally important are the choices for mayor and city council. These chosen leaders would decide how to spend the Measure E money. Creating a potential council majority, they would decide whether the estimated $3.2 million is treated as an investment – a necessity if there is any intention of getting on a healthy fiscal path – or a parachute.
One of the four candidates for mayor, Emerson, has openly stated he would take the same parachute approach – if Measure E passes – which Hollister has followed for the past five years under Measure T. If we had a crystal ball and could predict Emerson somehow winning in November, it would result in the worst possible situation coming out of the election for Hollister’s fiscal and economic prospects – an affirmation from voters on the leadership that got the city into this mess, and a guarantee that the same course of irresponsible spending, of lacking economic foresight, would continue with taxpayers’ hard-earned money.
Two of the primary reasons we endorsed Marty Richman for mayor were his commitments toward putting aside significant portions of the Measure E funds toward reserves and economic development. Maintaining the status quo and the same spending structure – with its enormous unit cost for employees – would ensure Hollister is right back in the same place five years from now. After all, putting aside 20 percent of the revenue annually would buy just one additional year once the measure would expire. That means with or without Measure E – if officials plan to wean the city off the sales tax and correct the structural deficit – significant reductions will be necessary to employee compensation.
Approving of Measure E and the wrong mayoral candidate also would ensure several more years of squandered opportunities in economic development – the only reliable, long-term source for permanent revenue growth – because all of the money would go toward the status quo government operations.
Certainly, as Emerson has repeated time and again, the economy did take a dive following the approval of Measure T. Council members, though, progressed at a snail’s pace in addressing the impact locally. They enacted a minimal number of layoffs – contrary to what we’re seeing at the county in recent years – and treated the temporary sales tax funds as a permanent fixture of the budget. They knowingly drove toward the cliff and counted on voters throwing them another parachute at the last moment.
That moment has come. Voters must decide for themselves whether spending that additional slice of their discretionary income makes financial sense to them.
If residents feel they cannot afford the extra expense, or they would rather have some extra money in their pockets at the end of the day, they should be comfortable in rejecting the measure. Hollister leaders and other Measure E supporters are, after all, asking a lot from a community in such dire economic straits. And the Measure E opposition group has valid arguments – none more poignant than the fact that a lower sales tax rate would result in additional spending power for local residents. It would result in establishing a draw of sorts for outside shoppers who would get an immediate discount when patronizing stores here instead of elsewhere in the surrounding area where the taxes are higher.
Still, with the paltry level of public safety services that now exist and the prospect for extraordinarily painful reductions, we reluctantly encourage voters to give Hollister officials one more chance and support Measure E. In the end, we must hold trust in the electoral process. With the right leadership steering the ship, Measure E has potential as a launch pad toward fiscal and economic stability.