County tax measures tap visitors' wallets

Taxes would apply to receipts of rental car, parking and hotel companies.

With the possibility of a $28 million budget deficit in San Mateo County for the 2012-13 fiscal year, the Board of Supervisors is asking voters to raise taxes by approving three measures on the June 5 ballot.

Asking for tax increases is usually a tough proposition, but these measures might be more palatable because the money would come mostly from someone else's wallets: visitors to the county, when the rental car, parking and hotel businesses pass the taxes on to their customers.

The three proposals avoid the requirement that tax measures be approved by two-thirds of voters to pass. By having the tax revenues go into the county's general fund, these "general purpose" tax measures need the approval of only a simple majority of voters, county manager John Maltbie told the Almanac.

Measures T and X would create new taxes.

T would impose a 2.5 percent tax on the gross receipts of vehicle rental companies in unincorporated areas, including the San Francisco International Airport.

Measure X would impose an 8 percent tax on receipts of commercial parking facilities in the same areas.

Measure T would raise around $7.75 million a year and Measure X around $5 million a year, according to an impartial analyses on the website of the county Registrar of Voters.

The proposals are back for a second look by voters. In 2008, voters rejected two similar measures with 53 percent voting no in each case.

Measure U would raise the hotel and motel occupancy tax rate to 12 percent from 10 percent in unincorporated areas of the county, raising $200,000 a year, the analysis estimates.

Pro and con

Backers do not avoid stating the obvious: These measures would raise revenues "without significantly impacting the pocketbooks of county residents and provide ... local revenue that cannot be diverted by the state," says the argument in favor of Measure T.

Signing one or more of the arguments in favor are county supervisors Adrienne Tissier, Carole Groom and Don Horsley; county Superintendent of Schools Anne Campbell; environmental activist Lennie Roberts; and former district attorney James Fox.

Backers point out that county government has, over a period of six years, cut costs by more than $70 million by eliminating 500 positions, reducing and consolidating department budgets, closing facilities and negotiating reductions in labor costs.

Nine jurisdictions in the county have 12 percent hotel and motel occupancy tax rates, and business at the airport is booming, with sustained growth for eight years, the backers say. The city and county of San Francisco receives $46 million from airport vehicle rentals while San Mateo County gets "pennies in comparison."

Nevertheless, Bay Area tourism, hospitality and entertainment interests would be hurt if the measures pass, opponents say. Among the opponents are Taxpayers for a Strong Economy and the Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association.

"If we're going to raise taxes, we need controls to ensure the money is spent on what matters most: education, public safety and job creation," the argument against Measure U says.

"Voters know very well who will suffer if these taxes are imposed," says the argument against Measure X. "We'll pay more for airport parking, hotel rooms and rental cars if these taxes pass. Even restaurant valet and paid hotel parking will be taxed."

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