San Jose Mercury News

San Jose council votes to explore new road taxes

by John Woolfolk

March 6, 2013


SAN JOSE -- Facing grim reports of deteriorating roads, the San Jose City Council voted unanimously to explore a raft of new tax and bond measures next year.

The council also voted 9-2 to encourage state lawmakers to lower the required approval threshold for tax measures dedicated to transportation needs from two-thirds to 55 percent. Councilmen Pete Constant and Johnny Khamis were opposed.

"The current condition of our roads is just unacceptable," said Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen.

But some of the few public speakers who attended the afternoon council meeting -- which was interrupted by a power outage -- urged restraint on new taxes, especially after council members noted they also are considering renewal of a library bond measure and possibly a public safety bond.

Ken Kelly, who is chairman of the United Neighborhoods of Santa Clara County, a coalition of neighborhood and home-owner associations, said city residents already are facing rising taxes after November votes to increase the state and county sales tax and extend a water district parcel tax.

"Tax fatigue," Kelly said, "is something you need to keep in mind."

San Jose fell behind on road maintenance over a decade of budget shortfalls brought on by employee pay and benefit costs outpacing revenue growth. To city leaders, keeping cops, firefighters and librarians on the job was a higher priority than maintaining streets.

San Jose streets average a "fair" pavement rating overall. But nearly a fourth of the city's 2,410-mile network rates poor. And at current spending levels -- about $20 million a year -- the city's entire road network will average a poor rating by 2020, said Transportation Director Hans Larsen.

Larsen said the city should be spending about $100 million a year to maintain its roads and prevent them from getting worse, and still faces a $339 million backlog of roadwork to repair 375 miles of neighborhood streets already in poor shape.

Larsen recommended the city pursue a trio of tax measures to fix and maintain the city's roads. That would include a general city sales tax, which city leaders could spend as they see fit and would require only majority approval to pass. Other ideas include extending and amending a 30-year, countywide half-cent sales tax that voters passed in 2000 to pay for BART and other transit projects to allow some proceeds to be used for local streets. Larsen suggested extending it indefinitely, arguing it could raise $15 million to $20 million a year for local streets, but Nguyen said it should sunset at some point. Larsen also recommended a $295 million street repair bond measure, which would cost average homeowners about $100 a year, to repair roads in poor condition.

The council voted unanimously to explore all three, though a decision is hardly final. Mayor Chuck Reed said the city should do further polling in September and make a decision in October in order to allow enough time to build support to pass taxes in June 2014. The city must decide by March 2014 to meet the deadline for a June ballot measure. Reed said the city needs to satisfy a number of conditions to ensure passage, ranging from positive polling to a solid support campaign.

The council was more divided over support for state legislative efforts to lower the approval threshold for transportation measures from two-thirds to 55 percent, similar to a move that made school bonds easier to pass.

Khamis and Constant argued that local governments have succeeded in passing transportation measures and that lowering the threshold was not only unnecessary but could invite reckless taxation by government leaders and another 1970s-style tax revolt.

Aaron Neighbour, a Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association board member, argued that "if you believe it's an emergency" tax measure, "you'd support the two-thirds" requirement.

Councilman Sam Liccardo said, "I think it is appropriate, if you're going to lower a threshold, that you do so on a local measure."

Contact John Woolfolk at 408-975-9346. Follow him on Twitter at

This article is also available at the Web site of the San Jose Mercury News, here.

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