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Sales tax increase in Marin reviewed; Transit agency wants to lift cap on amount

California   ·   Public Transportation   ·   Marin Independent Journal

The Transportation Authority of Marin is seeking support from local municipalities for state legislation that would authorize a local sales tax cap exemption.

The existing half-cent sales tax that funds the authority's Marin transportation projects expires in 2025. Lifting the cap would make it possible for the authority to ask voters to increase that sales tax.

"We're on the agenda of every city in Marin," said Dianne Steinhauser, the authority's executive director. The Fairfax Town Council was slated to discuss the item Wednesday; the item is on Novato's agenda for Jan. 24.

The San Rafael City Council voted 4-1 Tuesday to take no action on the proposed legislation, with Mayor Gary Phillips dissenting.

"I think we need more community input, both on transportation projects and on how a high sales tax rate would affect our community," said Councilwoman Kate Colin. "How does it affect our ability to attract businesses? How does it affect people's ability to pay it, especially in low-income communities? What are the ramifications of raising a sales tax cap?" Colin added that she wanted more information on which transportation projects were proposed.

Steinhauser acknowledged that the expenditure plan hasn't been developed yet and staffers don't know what might be included.

"But there are a number of needs that have come to us, with no source of funding," she said, citing Marin school bus service, rehabilitation and upgrades of local streets and roads, pedestrian improvements, senior mobility options and local road operations.

Sixty-eight percent of Marin residents who responded to a 2014 poll conducted by the authority said they were likely or definitely willing to raise the sales tax a quarter-cent for the items in that list.

"That's the starting point for the development of an expenditure plan for increasing the sales tax," the executive director said.

Getting Marin city councils on board is only the first step in a long process, a San Rafael official said.

"TAM has to seek legislation to increase the cap and is asking every jurisdiction whether or not they support that action. Our council only weighed in on that question," said Jim Schutz, San Rafael city manager.

Steinhauser said the authority has not yet decided how much of a sales tax increase it would pursue.

"It's important to understand that 0.5 percent is the maximum and no decision has been made whether to pursue that or not," Steinhauser said.

"The legislative deadline is this spring. If we don't get legislation, we are limited to the existing cap, which is 0.25 percent," Steinhauser said.

Pursuing the exemption leaves more options open for the authority and the county, Steinhauser said. Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, is considering authoring the bill, "with the principal co-author being Assemblyman Marc Levine," she said.

If the Legislature votes to lift the cap, the next step would be to put together an expenditure plan under the direction of a committee of community members - an advisory committee, Steinhauser said. Then the draft plan must be approved by all the cities and towns in the county.

Only then could the authority put the tax on the ballot, Steinhauser said. "Every city council has to approve the expenditure plan and agree to put the tax increase on the ballot."

The voters would then have to approve the tax increase by a two-thirds majority, she said.

At present, San Rafael and Fairfax each have a 9 percent sales tax. If a 0.5 percentage-point increase were to be passed by the voters, those cities would then have a 9.5 percent sales tax. These cities have the highest sales tax in Marin, according to numbers released by the authority.

Novato has an 8.5 percent sales tax, so a 0.5 percentage-point increase would boost its sales tax to 9 percent.

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