'The county is at a crossroads'

·4 min read

Aug. 6—Due to what the county sees as limitations in its ability to grow and benefit from its tax base, the Sutter County Board of Supervisors will decide during Tuesday's upcoming meeting if voters should approve a one cent "retail" sales tax increase to help avoid possible cuts to county services, such as those that fall within the realm of public safety.

County Administrative Officer Steve Smith has raised concerns about the county's ability to properly fund existing services and the possible expansion of other critical programs. Because of ongoing revenue concerns, Smith and county staff plan to ask supervisors to consider a measure for the November general election to raise the county's sales tax for General Fund purposes for nine years.

"The county is at a crossroads," Smith said in a staff report obtained by the Appeal. "The cost of providing services, and most importantly public safety services, is growing faster than local revenues. Over the past 10 years, the cost of providing public safety services has increased by 38.6% (4.29% average per year), while property tax has increased by 31.8% (3.53% average per year) and sales tax has increased 32.0% (3.56% per year average). This growing gap has been managed by reducing costs in non-public safety departments, which have grown by only 2.3% (0.26% average per year) over the same 10-year period."

In the staff report, an analysis and projection of Sutter County's "General Fund revenues and costs shows a gap of slightly under $1 million in FY 2023-24 with the deficit rising to approximately $11.8 million by FY 2028-29 if current trends continue."

The county said it "cannot sustain an ongoing operating deficit, so reductions in services, inclusive of public safety services like law enforcement and fire protection, will have to be made if additional revenues do not materialize."

Smith and the county have estimated that a one cent countywide sales tax increase could generate about $19.6 million in its first year of implementation.

Critics have suggested that the county is in its current fiscal position because of mismanagement and poor investment decisions by supervisors and the county. Former Sutter County Board of Supervisors District 2 candidate Courtney Ortega made that argument during her recent campaign for the seat.

According to a Facebook post that was on Ortega's official campaign Facebook page and a flyer that had appeared in the mailboxes of some county residents, Sutter County's decision to buy the Kmart building in Yuba City cost taxpayers more than $12 million.

The county refuted many of Ortega's claims.

"It is unclear what is meant by 'costing taxpayers,'" Chuck Smith, public information officer for Sutter County, previously said. "It's also unclear how the property and sales tax numbers were calculated. The county retains a valuable real property asset, so the county does not agree that the taxpayers have lost anything."

Steve Smith, in a recent editorial in the Appeal, asserted that Sutter County "has been doing more with less for a long time." According to the county, it has the second fewest employees per capita of the 31 counties within California with a population of 200,000 or fewer.

"Sutter County has difficulty recruiting employees, especially those with specialized skills, because it pays less than surrounding government agencies," Smith wrote. "And we have combined services with other local government agencies wherever possible."

Smith also said that because of Sutter County's unique geography, there are limitations for the type of growth that is possible — growth that could contribute to the type of revenue the county would need.

"The natural features that lend to the pleasant aspects of the countryside and country life we enjoy come at a cost. They severely restrict the ability of the county to attract economic development and generate revenue for county services," Smith wrote. "More than 68% of Sutter County's land mass is in either a federal or state designated flood zone, where the cost of raising buildings to a safe elevation is often too great to encourage development. No other California county is handicapped by federal and state flood plain policy to such an extent. (Yolo County, the county with the next highest percentage of its land in a flood zone, is at about half of Sutter County's percentage)."

Because of these factors, the county feels it may be necessary to increase the sales tax rate.

Chuck Smith said Sutter County is "only one of a handful of counties where the sales tax has not been increased above the state base rate of 7.25% across the county or in one or more of its incorporated cities."

Steve Smith said if voters ultimately approved the one cent sales tax measure on the November ballot, then he would recommend that a citizens committee be formed to make recommendations to the board of supervisors on how the new revenue should be used.

The agenda item containing this possible measure will be discussed during the next Sutter County Board of Supervisors meeting at 3 p.m. on Tuesday in the chambers of Yuba City Hall at 1201 Civic Center Blvd. in Yuba City. To watch the meeting online, visit suttercounty.org. Meetings are streamed live and archived for later viewing.