UKIAH, 8/7/2020 — In January, the City of Willits had a dozen job openings and was hoping to fill them quickly. By the beginning of August, Mayor Gerardo “Gerry” Gonzalez had issued a statement that Willits was facing a budget emergency, and without additional revenue, the “city is on the verge of closure.” Like many other municipalities across the country, the spring was a kind of fiscal whiplash — though Willits in particular has faced budget issues for years.
“We have been cutting and cutting our budget,” Gonzales wrote. “We have cut all we can, and based on current projections, our operating reserve will be depleted soon.” According to a letter sent to residents on Monday, August 3, 2020, the city has a budget shortfall of about $700,000 for the coming year and the tax increase is expected to raise around $1 million per year if passed. Asked about the long term consequences of such budget shortfalls Willits City Manager Stephanie Garrabrant-Sierra warned that it could lead to a “process of dissolution.”
For a third consecutive year in a row, the city has needed to cut costs and dip into general fund reserves to balance the budget — seeing a significant loss in sales tax revenue since the opening of the Willits Bypass in 2016 — the COVID pandemic has been a shock to cities across the county. Experts at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a progressive think tank that analyzes the impact of federal and state government budget policies, predict that many cities across California will face the same dilemma that families and individuals have been grappling with since March, as emergencies like wildfires, power shutoffs, and now COVID-19 continue to consume their budgets.
The City of Willits currently has one of the lowest sales tax rates in the county, which hasn’t increased in years, and an increase in sales tax would bring them more in line with other cities in the county. At the July 29 council meeting, council members voted unanimously to adopt a resolution calling for an emergency sales tax increase of .75 percent which would add seven and a half cents to a purchase of ten dollars. Willits has been struggling for years with increasing costs and decreasing revenues. In an email, City Manager Garrabrant-Sierra said, “A city can only ask for a tax increase during a general election (every 2 years). therefore,[sic] if this does not pass, we will need to look at a process of dissolution.”
Speaking by phone about what a shutdown of city services might look like, Councilmember Greta Kanne said, “That’s a really good question that I can’t answer because no one really knows.”
According to Gonzalez’s letter, the city cannot continue to cut the budget without dramatically affecting services. If the city were to close, that would mean no city police department, street repair left to the county, closure of community facilities such as the city pool and community center, and no maintenance at city parks and playfields. The county would handle local government services such as building permits and inspections if the city entered into a process of dissolution.
Speaking directly to the residents of Willits, Gonzalez stated he was issuing the letter to be transparent and forthright with residents about the city’s current state of affairs.
Gonzalez said in the letter that the city is hoping that a “temporary, emergency sales tax to provide funding for essential services” will ease some strain and prevent the need to transfer essential services.
The council is asking for the increase now because it can only ask for a tax increase during a general election every two years. If the voters approve the ballot measure in November, it will sunset in ten years or repealed sooner if decided by the council.
The Mendo Voice has reached out for comment and requested more details from City Council members and city leaders and will update this story as more information is available.