The County Board of Supervisors faced a roomful of opposition last week when they met with constituents to discuss and approve the final budget for fiscal year 2019-2020, which includes tax increases.
The final budget, which the supervisors approved unanimously during the Aug. 7 meeting, sees a 10-cent increase to the primary property tax, raising the rate to $3.98 per $100 of assessed value. The secondary tax rate also includes a raise of 2 cents, setting it at $0.89.
“We’ve really tried to be very conscientious about not even going up to the maximum, (which is) about $2. We’re just asking for 10 cents,” Supervisor Manuel Ruiz said after Finance Director Mauricio Chavez presented the impacts of the new tax raises.
The county is looking at more than $1 million in additional expenses for the coming year, Chavez explained. Those are all state-mandated costs that county administration has no control over, such as the voter-approved minimum-wage increase, and a rise in healthcare and retirement costs, he said.
Chavez added that the new 10-cent tax increase would bring an additional $912,000 to the county, still leaving a deficit of $144,000, which would come out of the savings fund.
However, several community members present at the meeting – mostly from Eastern Santa Cruz County – argued that even a small tax hike would burn big holes in local residents’ pockets.
Eight people, including members of the Sonoita-Elgin Community Group, spoke up during the meeting to voice their disappointment and anger with the supervisors’ budgetary plan.
Eastern county resident Britta Appel, who was present during the July 17 meeting at which the board approved the budget in tentative form, voiced her frustration with the supervisors’ “dismissive” attitude towards the new tax increase.
“When you sit there and you say, ‘It’s only 10 cents,’ I ask you for a reality check because my checkbook says something completely different,” Appel said. “This statement is simplistic, it’s disingenuous and it evidences a shocking disregard to the intelligence of every taxpayer and property owner here in Santa Cruz County.”
Using her own finances as a representative example, Appel explained that her tax bills increased by more than 60 percent between 2015 to 2018, and she still expects to see another rise in her 2019 bills.
But Ruiz argued that other taxing districts play a role in residents’ overall tax bills, not just the county.
He added that the only alternative to a tax increase was to dig deep into the rainy-day fund, which the county has already been turning to year after year for nearly a decade.
“There’s going to come a point in time when we’re not going to have any savings and will probably have to layoff a lot of personnel, and services are going to suffer because we won’t have the funds or revenue to give those services,” Ruiz said, adding that county leaders have tried their best to remain “frugal” in their expenses.
One of the biggest cost-saving measures in this year’s budget, Supervisor Bruce Bracker told the NI, was the closure of the Sonoita Justice Court and consolidation of Justice of the Peace Precinct 2 with Precinct 1, which eastern county residents had shown great opposition to.
Had the county not closed down the Sonoita Justice Court, Bracker said, they would have been discussing much higher tax increases.
But David Green, also an eastern county resident and leader of the Sonoita-Elgin Community Group, insisted that the supervisors weren’t working for the benefit of the county.
“I think the time has passed for you to use Phoenix as an excuse for your inability to be creative about growing the economy in this county. I think the people deserve more than that… and you should give them more than that,” he said.