Exeter takes step forward on sales tax measure

Revenue measure committee recommends 1% to 1.25% sales tax increase for the ballot in November

EXETER – Exeter is the only city in Tulare County to not have a sales tax measure to boost their general fund. And as of May 19, the city is closer to getting one.

The Proposed Revenue Measure Advisory Committee (PRMAC) for Exeter that was established in January, was made up of business owners and community stake holders. After several weeks of presentations on the city’s budget and city finance, they returned to council late last month to issue their recommendation.

According to a staff report the seven committee members unanimously agreed that the city needs a general sales tax measure for the general fund. Five of the seven members agreed that the sales tax should be 1% that would bring the city’s total sales tax to 8.75%. A full 1% projects to bring in an additional $900,000 per year.

Two of the members said the city should ask voters for a 1.25% sales tax measure.

In terms of what to spend the additional dollars on, all seven agreed public safety was a top priority. Matching public safety as a unanimous top priority, was streets. Parks and recreation, code enforcement and facilities were considered a mid-priority by most of the committee.

With the committee’s recommendation in hand, the council voted in favor of contracting with FM3Research: Opinion Research and Strategy. The research firm will conduct online and phone surveys with residents in the community. They will assess the residents’ perceptions of the city’s direction; determine their awareness of the city’s need for additional funds for essential services; gauge their priorities for funding to maintain and improve city services and infrastructure; and identify their reasons to support or oppose additional funding for those things.

The sample size will be 200 residents within the city with an approximate subsample of 142 voters likely to vote in November.

Exeter city manager Adam Ennis said that the firm has a long track record of reliable results, and are often used by other cities in Tulare County.

“We have found in the past that they have done a pretty good job of being pretty accurate of what they come up with on the surveys,” Ennis said.

The Exeter City Council has until the end of July to approve ballot language and decide whether they want to place the sales tax measure on the ballot in November.

Earlier this year Exeter Chief of Police, John Hall provided a presentation to the council to spell out the police department’s need for equipment, among other things.

Because of budget shortfalls over the last three years, the Exeter Police Department has chosen to forego improvements on the operations side of the ledger. Fortunately, that has led to a fully staffed department. Unfortunately, if the department was asked to trim their budget, they would have to let go of officers.

According to Hall’s presentation to council, the traditional budget split between operational equipment and personnel is 25% to 75% respectively. But with deferred maintenance and replacement, paired with more staff, the current balance has been 83.2% to 16.8% personnel to operational costs.

“When you look at what is allocated to the operation side, in order to make any type of significant savings you have to look at the personnel side,” Hall said.

In order to keep a balanced budget over the last six years Hall said the department has kept building maintenance at a six year low, and provided examples. During the presentation the council reviewed photos of several parts of the building where the wooden façade is rotting. Hall added that the inside flooring is in bad shape and from 20 years ago, mold is growing outside some of the walls and HVAC unit has been under continuous repair and nearing replacement.

The department has downsized their K-9 teams from three to two and are relying on donations to help balance the account.

“You would be amazed at the level of deterrence that a K-9 provides over an officer,” Hall said.

He added that as an officer he has seen suspects openly defy several officers. But when they deploy a K-9 officer they become compliant much faster.

“They don’t want to argue with the dog,” Hall said.

A point of emphasis Hall made was the need for training. Exeter officers have to meet the minimum level of training required by the state, but the department is charged with accommodating training schedules and cost. Outside of just meeting state mandates, Hall said that not keeping up on training is a major risk.

“If you look at lawsuits, one of the key claim is failure to train…and the only thing that is going to make it right is a lot of money,” Hall said. “But also, what caliber officer do you want responding to your call for help…do you want an ‘eh he’s alright’ or do you want someone who’s trained far beyond minimum standards.”

Discussed during budget meetings before has been vehicle and equipment replacement. One police vehicle has 226,982 miles logged.

“I’ve never seen a vehicle with that high of mileage in police service,” Hall said.

Other items in need of replacement have been body cameras, body armor and mobile radios. Hall added that Motorola has said they will not fix the model of radios they have now, after next year.

According to Hall, in order to maintain the services the department provides the city would need to increase their budget by $283,836. Although, to raise the level of service their budget would need to increase by $600,000. The additional funding would add a new sergeant positions for supervision worth $130,000 and a community service officer worth $60,000. Both would need about $50,000 in one time costs for a vehicle and equipment.

Without a sales tax measure to increase general fund revenue Hall said they would have to face consequences to releasing officers to balance future budgets. Among other things, Hall highlighted that the department would have to become “reactive” instead of “proactive.”

“Without a presence on the streets crooks are more likely to do what crooks do,” Hall said.

In his presentation he stated that a reduced level of proactively results in increased crime, leading to more calls and in turn reduced the proactivity of officers.

Almost equally important is the amount of increased overtime. Because fewer officers would be on staff to cover shifts while officers are out training or sick, there is a higher rate of overtime. But Hall pointed to an increase in fatigue and lower morale being more of a risk of workers comp claims.

“If people are tired and aren’t making good decisions you have more workers comps claims…it’s something you want to avoid,” Hall said.

In March, Ennis and public works director Daymon Qualls pointed to several facilities with glaring needs.

The most serious repairs were identified in the city administration-police department building.

Ennis said that the sun has beat down on the wood paneling the west and south side of the building. As a result the wood has been weakened, but because of moisture that creeps in, rot has also set in. Ennis added that hired contractor, Jim Wood, who helped identify facility conditions, managed to easily knock off some of the paneling by just pressing his foot against it.

Wood also identified in adequate HVAC ducting throughout the building.

“That building has been chopped up, and rooms have shifted for years. You can tell where the ducting has been ripped apart, cut apart and moved from here and there,” Ennis said.

As a result rooms throughout do not get an equal level of air conditioning. Some are freezing while others become hot. Ennis said the front portion of the administration office that faces C Street needed a window unit to supplement the amount air conditioning the room gets.

Wood suggested that the city hire an inspector for termites as a just-in-case measure. City councilman Frankie Alves asked how serious the threat is and noted that the city may have to adjust if it turns out they have to tent the building for extermination. Ennis said that Wood was not confident that there are termites but wanted to be sure before repairs were made. And Ennis said that there are other options to get rid of termites before tenting is necessary.

To repair the wood paneling on the side of the building, Wood suggested the city either paint the side as a protective coat, or stucco the building. But each comes at a different cost.

“It’s about $80,000-90,000 to probably stucco it, or you can pay $25,000 to $30,000 painting it every five years,” Ennis said.

Not as bad as the city administration and police department buildings, but still in bad shape, is the corporation yard for the public works department. Ennis said that Wood identified the overlapping metal and fiberglass sheets that are the roof of one of the buildings. Wood said that the fiberglass lets light into the building and should be replaced. If nothing else than because someone could fall through.

In addition, he found electrical infrastructure in need of replacement and three rolling doors that cannot open because they don’t have the equipment to fix them. The most outstanding repair is to an entire side of a building. Ennis showed in a picture to the council a considerable hole to a metal building. Although, the building is used for storage.

Other buildings like city hall and the fire department all had electrical repairs needed. In city hall the city realized the need to fix massive water damage that forced them to cut out half of damaged drywall. Ennis added that there are not safety switches for the bay doors. And there are broken tiles on the roof.

In all the city determined that they would need approximately $53,900 per year to keep up annual maintenance and $170,750 in onetime repairs. The largest chunk going to the city administration building and police department worth $106,700.

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