Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – Whenever you buy something taxable in Arcata, three-fourths of one cent of the sales tax helps catch bad guys and smooth the streets. That less-than-a-penny increment may not seem like much, but in the 2016/2017 fiscal year it brought in more than $2 million, with all the funds dedicated to public safety and public works.
Approved by Arcata voters in 2008 for a 20-year period, a concern at the time was that the city might succumb to temptation to spend the monies on things other than the intended cops and roads. Thus, the Transactions and Use Tax Oversight Committee (TUTOC), composed of Arcata citizens, convenes as needed – roughly three times per year – to track TUT expenditures.
According to a staff report for last week’s City Hall meeting – attended only by a lone reporter – Arcata’s sales tax is 8.5 percent. The State of California takes 6.25 percent; the City of Arcata gets 1 percent, the county’s Measure Z takes half of percent and the TUT claims three-fourths of 1 percent.
The tax is even levied on purchases of vehicles – cars, boats, motorcycles and airplanes – that take place outside of Arcata, as long as the purchases are delivered here.
The several-year upturn in the economy following the Great Recession has been good for the TUT, with revenue increasing from $1.7 million in 2010/2011 to $2.13 million last fiscal year. The cash made possible a bevy of transportation and safety projects.
Revenues were initially supposed to be allocated as roughly one-third to law enforcement and two-thirds to public works. That ratio has proven difficult to maintain every year, what with the demands of special road projects as well as rising personnel costs for APD.
Recent public works expenditures include about $500,000 for the Humboldt Bay Trail North; $800,000 for paving projects on Buttermilk Lane and South G Street; traffic calming, sidewalk and ADA improvements; $49,200 for a comprehensive traffic study for the Sunset Avenue/Foster Avenue/Alliance Road area due to the many planned housing projects in the area; $54,450 for Old Arcata Road Design charette, plus striping and minor paving; $75,000 to lay about 1,700 tons of asphalt at multiple locations; and $80,000 for Safe Routes to School improvements.
Many of the TUT expenditures made possible matching funds from the City’s General Fund.
Many of the TUT expenditures helped make possible matching funds from the city’s General Fund.
Chronic understaffing at the Arcata Police Department had resulted in declining public safety back in the mid-2000s. One highly cited example was Redwood Park, which at the time was overrun with druggies and their dogs.
Thanks in part to TUT funding, APD has been able to increase staffing to nominal levels. The tax offset $925,000 of the department’s $5.8 million in expenses last fiscal year.
But rising employee costs, attrition and a shortfall in the number of applicants continue to challenge the department’s ability to deploy a full force of officers, dispatchers and support personnel. Two years ago, dire budget conditions forced APD to drop one sworn officer position and eliminate several others just to keep pace with expenses.
Total operating costs have risen by some $1.4 million since the tax was first implemented.
Today, the department allocates 27 sworn positions, one of which is covered by Measure Z funding. But only 22 of the officer positions are filled, and the department expects two more vacancies by January. Of six allocated dispatcher positions, just four are filled.
The personnel gap is made up with costly overtime. Apart from the epense, the extra duty takes a toll of stress on overworked cops and dispatchers alike.
“Staffing is still an issue, and we’re not making as much positive progress as we’d like,” said Det. Sgt. Todd Dokweiler, addressing the committee.
He said that while APD’s salaries are competitive at $45,000 for a starting position on top of a $7,500 signing bonus. Eureka PD, however, offers a $15,000 signing bonus.
For whatever reasons, College of the Redwoods’ Basic Police Academy, on which APD and other local agencies depend for recruits, is down from historic enrollment levels.
“There’s just not a lot of folks out there,” Dokweiler said.
APD is sponsoring a trainee through the CR academy at a cost of some $24,000. However, the department can’t legally require the graduate to then come work for APD. Trainees sponsored by Eureka PD have gone through the program and then sought employment elsewhere.