By Doug Oakley
Bay Area News Group
The people of Berkeley have spoken loud and clear to city leaders: No new taxes.
Even the famously left-leaning city has its limits, apparently. A recent poll of 430 residents likely to vote in the November election told city leaders they won't get the necessary two-thirds approval to raise property taxes to fund any of the $500 million needed to upgrade the city's infrastructure such as roads, swimming pools, storm drains and buildings.
Residents' attitudes about the direction of the local economy weighed heavily on their answers to the $24,000 poll conducted in March, a pollster told City Council members Tuesday evening.
"It doesn't appear we have a package that is an easy win at this point," David Mermin of Lake Research Partners told council members. "In terms of the local economy, 45 percent say it's staying the same, which is a fairly negative view because the economy has been so lousy for the last few years and 17 percent think it is getting worse. Thirty-four percent said the local economy is getting better."
The question that came the closest to the 67 percent needed to pass an increase in property taxes -- which garnered a 59 percent yes vote -- asked if the city should issue bonds worth $25 million to repair storm drains and improve water quality. That idea would raise taxes on a house valued at $350,000 an average of $36 per year for 30 years.
"None of the responses reached the 67 percent threshold," Mermin said. "The main predictor of how people vote is their attitude toward the economy, not their own personal situation, but if they thought the regional economy was getting better they supported bond measures."
The second highest vote at 58 percent was a question asking if the city should tax an average size home of 1,900 square feet $25 a year to raise $1 million to fund homeless services.
A third combination question asking for an increase in taxes of $73 a year on a $350,000 house to fund $50 million in street, storm drain and water quality improvements, got a 56 percent yes vote.
The poll cast a pall on City Council members who were hoping for better.
"I really feel like property taxes are a poison right now, people have just had it," said Mayor Tom Bates. "They're saying 'c'mon. We already have a very high rate here.'"
Bates and Councilman Gordon Wozniak said they would like to see how residents feel about a sales tax on gasoline to fund roads and other projects or a tax on natural gas.
"A carbon (emission) fee could be assessed on petroleum and the dedicated nexus could be street repair and maintenance," Bates said. "I would love to see us test that. Or we could have a carbon (emission) fee on natural gas for home heating with an exemption for poor people."
Councilman Max Anderson said the poll "is not the most encouraging." He and several other councilmembers talked about rephrasing the questions at possibly lower dollar amounts to get the answers they want that might support putting a tax measure on the November ballot.
"We need to improve the questions a little bit so we can elicit the kinds of responses we think people are capable of giving," Anderson said. "There are a lot of variables that could influence the kinds of things that happen in November. Another war could knock the bottom out of everyone's enthusiasm."
Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.