Exeter takes revenue measure to November ballot

Exeter City Council votes unanimously to put their proposed one-cent sales tax on this year’s November ballot

EXETER – After a ringing endorsement for an increase in the city’s sales tax two weeks ago, the Exeter City Council decided to launch headlong into putting it up on the November ballot.

Last week the council voted unanimously in favor of the final language that voters will be seeing when they cast their ballot this fall. In length it reads, “To protect Exeter’s long-term financial stability; maintain 911 emergency response; keep the community safe; prevent crime’ repair streets/potholes; help retain local businesses; keep public areas and parks clean/safe; support youth/senior programs, and other general City services; shall the measure establishing a 1 [cent] sales tax providing approximately $800,000 annually until ended by voters.”

The council also voted to spend $30,000 for outreach services to educate the community on the sales tax measure. As well, the council and staff will be trained on what they can and cannot say as public officials when speaking to the community.

Since approving the ballot language, the city submitted it to the county elections office. This is just the final step before the election. But leading up to this point Exeter had received a telling survey about the support a one cent sales tax measure has in the community.

Because the revenue measure is a general sales tax, only 50% plus one of voters needs to vote in favor of it. And almost all of the metrics from FM3 Research’s survey, the company tasked with taking Exeter residents’ temperature of a sales tax measure, points to two-thirds favorability.

Of the 213 voters surveyed 45% of them are definitely voting yes when initially asked, and 27% are probably voting yes. Another 4% said they were undecided but leaned yes. Which put the total in the yes column at 77%.

The same voters who were given information about the city’s deficiencies as a result of lack of funding became slightly more dedicated to voting yes on the measure. The definitely yes group of voters increased from 45% to 52%, probably yes voters declined from 27% to 23%. And undecided but leaning yes declined from 4% to 3%. But the total percentage of yes votes increased from 77% to 78%.

After hearing critical statements such as the city should tighten it’s belt to squeeze more value out of every dollar, voters reasonably cooled on the idea of a sales tax hike. Voters in the definitely yes column fell from 45% after their initial vote to only 44%. Voters in the probably yes column stood at 23%, and undecided voters that are leaning yes declined to 2%. But the entire total was still 69%.

“There’s no panacea…not everyone is going to be on board and say yeah they support this 100%…But what this is telling me, in spite of hearing critical statements that you’re still at 69% total yes…most cities would kill for these numbers,” Richard Bernard from FM3 Research said.

Bernard added that the survey’s results indicate that the city council has a strong pulse on the community’s needs.

“I was a little leery when we started this. But we must be doing something right,” vice mayor Barbara Sally said.

When it came to how much the tax measure should be, the numbers were negligibly close. A one cent sales tax increase is projected to yield the city an extra $800,000 per year. The survey revealed that 45% of voters would definitely vote for a one-cent increase, and 27% would probably vote yes. And 4% of undecided voters lean yes, totaling 77%.

When asked if they were in favor of a three-quarter sales tax increase favorability declined to 72%. According to the presentation 50% of voters said they would definitely vote yes, but the percentage of probably yes voters dropped from 27% to 20%. And the percentage of voters who are undecided but leaning yes declined from 4% to 2%.

As well, 20% of voters leaned no, were probably no or were definitely no when asked to increase the city’s sales tax by one cent. But when they were asked about a three-quarter cent sales tax increase, 23% of voters said no. Indicating, that voters felt that three-quarters is not enough to make a difference.

Council agreed to move forward and present voters with a full one-cent sales tax increase on the November ballot. The language was expected to be approved at last night’s July 28 Exeter City Council meeting, after press time. Expected as well is an oversight committee to monitor the city’s use of the sales tax dollar if approved in November.

According to a May 19 city staff report regarding the Proposed Revenue Measure Advisory Committee’s recommendation, all seven members of the committee agreed public safety was a top priority. Matching public safety, was streets. Parks and recreation, code enforcement and facilities were considered a mid-priority by most of the committee.

According to FM3 Research’s results, public safety still reigned supreme. Maintaining 9-1-1 emergency response was rated as extremely or very important by 88% of voters surveyed, while maintaining public safety in general was rated extremely or very important by 86%. Helping prevent crime and keeping the community safe gathered 83% and 82% respectively.

The only nonpublic safety related priority to gather over 80% was protecting local water supplies with 85% rating it extremely or very important.

Maintaining essential city services was rated extremely or very important by 79% of voters. Repairing streets and potholes gathered 78% along with helping to retain local businesses and upgrading aging first responders equipment.

Keeping public areas and parks clean and safe, supporting youth programs and preparing for and recovering from public health emergencies all gathered 77% of the vote as extremely or very important.

Protecting the city’s long-term financial stability gathered 74% of the vote as extremely or very important. Preparing for droughts gathered 70%. Supporting senior programs gathered 65% and making city buildings and sidewalks accessible to residents in wheelchairs gathered 64%.

No other priorities dipped below 64% when it came to being extremely or very important.

Exeter city manager Adam Ennis said that the entire survey was encouraging news.

“The good news is that there seems to be a lot of consistency….we’re definitely seeing areas in here where were educating and giving [voters] the information that they should have for making these kind of decisions,” Ennis said.

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