Menlo Park council puts utility tax on ballot — barely
• Council nearly rejects measure when Andy Cohen backs out, but colleagues persuade him to change vote.
Although for a while a Menlo Park utility tax measure appeared doomed to a premature death at the City Council dais, the measure's fate will be decided, after all, by voters in November.
The council ultimately voted 5-0 at its August 1 meeting to put the measure on the ballot.
Council members are often divided on major issues, but have been uncharacteristically unanimous regarding the need for a tax measure to help balance the city's budget — until August 1.
The council had been set to give final approval to a two-tiered measure that, if passed by a majority of voters in November, would authorize the city to tax water, gas and electric bills up to 3.5 percent; and telephone, cell phone and cable bills up to 2.5 percent.
The council unanimously supported the measure at its July 25 meeting.
But Councilman Andy Cohen — who had adamantly supported a tax measure for several months — started off council discussion of the tax by withdrawing his support.
His decision surprised the other council members, all of whom stressed that although a tax measure needs only four council votes to be placed on the ballot, it is more likely to be supported by voters if it is endorsed by the entire council.
Mayor Jellins and Councilwoman Mickie Winkler said they would withdraw their support for the tax if Mr. Cohen refused to back it.
"Anything less than unanimity dooms [the tax] for failure," said Mr. Jellins. "We don't have a campaign if we don't have unanimity."
Mr. Cohen said the decision to put an annual cap of $12,000 for any single user of electricity, gas and water, makes the tax "regressive," as businesses would be spared from paying a proportionally equal share of the tax.
He also said that tax revenues would help cover employee retirement costs — rising costs the city needs to address without taxing residents and businesses.
He said his previous support for the tax measure was an attempt to "get along" with the rest of the council, but he decided he could not support it.
After more than an hour of criticism and pleas directed toward Mr. Cohen, he changed his stance when Mayor Jellins said the council would be forced to lay off employees and cut city services if a tax is not adopted.
"I'm going to go along with this because I'm not ready to make cuts now," Mr. Cohen said.
City staff estimates the tax would produce about $2.5 million a year for the city.
If approved by voters, the tax would be reviewed every two years, when four council members would have to vote in favor of the tax to keep it active.