Berkeley Voters Hot on Soda Tax, Cool on Other Taxes
By Doug Oakley Staff Writer Bay Area News Group firstname.lastname@example.org
BERKELEY -- Some taxes are good, and some are bad.
That's the sentiment of residents here who were surveyed recently about raising taxes on property and vacant buildings as well as soda and sweetened beverages.
The poll was taken to guide the City Council on what kind of measures to put on the November ballot.
In the survey of 503 voters conducted March 5-9, 66 percent said they would support a tax of 1 cent per ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages, while 28 percent said they would not, and 6 percent were undecided. The money would go into the city's general fund. The measure would need 50 percent of the vote to pass.
When voters were asked the same question but with the money dedicated to obesity and diabetes prevention programs, 64 percent would vote for it. In that case it would be classified as a special tax, which needs 66 percent of the vote to pass.
Berkeley Councilman Laurie Capitelli, a strong backer of a soda tax, said he was pleased with the results, but he added it may not be strong enough given the soda industry's deep pockets for lobbying against such a measure.
"Most of us who are looking to move this forward have no illusions about the fact that the soda industry is going to come in with millions of dollars and campaign against it, and that's what happened in Richmond in 2012," Capitelli said. "I'd like to see Berkeley become the first city in the nation to take this on. Liquid sugar is toxic."
Richmond voters defeated that tax.
Berkeley voters are also in favor of taxing commercial landlords who own retail space that has been vacant for at least two years as a way to motivate them to rent the facilities to small businesses.
Fifty-four percent said they would support a $1 per square foot tax on vacant retail space, just above the 50 percent needed to pass it.
Capitelli, who is a retired real estate agent, said there are a lot of longtime building owners who have low property taxes and are waiting around for high-paying retail tenants that are just not going to materialize, especially with competition from the Internet.
"The rate has gone down, and property owners have not shifted with it," Capitelli said. "For whatever reason, maybe just a lack of motivation, these people are not renting their space. They are either asking too much or have visions of a tenant who doesn't exist anymore."
Capitelli said it doesn't help when the city of Berkeley has so many restrictions on what kind of retail businesses can go where and that it can take six to eight months to get approval to open.
Fifty percent of voters said they would enact a $1 per square foot tax on landlords with four units or more if they have a unit vacant for at least a year.
Also in the poll, voters would reject increases in property taxes for parks, playgrounds and a swimming pool, with none of the questions asked getting the necessary 66 percent to pass.
Reach Doug Oakley at 925-234-1699. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/douglasoakley