Greg Howden’s letter (“Suggestions for solving St. Helena’s problems,” March 3, Napa Valley Register) suggests he hasn’t yet read the report of the Ad Hoc Revenue Task Force, which we issued on Feb. 9. As we stated in the report, our goal was to identify realistic sources of revenue that could gain broad community support and feasibly provide funds adequate to secure the city’s financial future.
With the help of city staff, we conducted a comprehensive assessment of the city’s budget and financial condition, reviewed legal and fiscal guidelines for California municipalities, and examined successful revenue initiatives taken by other cities.
We’re sorry that Mr. Howden was apparently unable to attend any of the many open meetings we convened over the past few months and witness not only our own deliberations but also the numerous comments and suggestions offered by members of the public at every meeting. Had he done so, his March 3 remarks might have been more accurate.
So let’s set the record straight.
First of all, task force members were not paid. We were a diverse group of citizens who care about their community and volunteered for the job. Each of us brought a different perspective and strong opinions to our candid and vigorous discussions. Once our work was done, the task force was dissolved.
Second, it must be underscored that city leadership changed in 2014 with the appointment of a new city manager and the election of a new mayor. The city’s financial crisis was not created on the watch of either City Manager Jennifer Phillips or Mayor Alan Galbraith. Nevertheless, city staff, backed by the city council, have worked transparently and unstintingly to define and address the problem.
According to Mr. Howden, the mayor’s appeal to residents and businesses to support modest taxes for improving the infrastructure and services everyone uses and benefits from is “just plain criminal.” Such a statement can’t be taken seriously. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that 100 percent of any such taxes would go to the city and the city alone, and enactment would have to be approved by a vote of the people.
Mr. Howden also asserts that “seniors” would be penalized by a real property transfer tax. Homeowners (seniors or otherwise) who have lived in St. Helena for many decades have likely seen the value of their properties increase as much as five-fold or more even after correcting for inflation, while increases in their property taxes have been limited by statute. Because of high sales prices, recent purchasers pay much higher taxes and therefore are contributing more each year to city revenues. It’s hard to see how a transfer tax would diminish quality of life for longtime residents when they stand to realize such appreciation.
The “solutions” Mr. Howden proposes have little merit. St. Helena has already implemented an ordinance permitting 25 short-term rental properties, but the task force declined to recommend expanding the program, concluding that the probable additional revenues did not warrant further consideration at this time.
Mr. Howden’s recommendation to somehow “consolidate” all Upvalley municipalities into one ignores the existence of the Ag Preserve, the difficulty of annexation, and not least the civic pride of communities that have their own character and date back to the 19th century.
Finally, this tax opponent would “tax every winery $1 for every bottle” opened for tastings, laying the sole burden on our most important industry. We believe a half-cent sales tax increase would be more equitable and practicable.
To read the report of the Ad Hoc Revenue Task Force, go to: ci.st-helena.ca.us/sites/default/file/Task%20Force%20FINAL%202-8-16_1.pdf.
Donna Hinds, Chair; Wayne Armstrong; Cameron Crebs; Katie Leonardini; Jack Stuart; Chuck Vondra
St. Helena Ad Hoc Revenue Task Force
Editor's note: The task force's report is also attached to the online version of this letter.