With a tax set to expire next spring, the Millbrae City Council approved an agreement with Ground Floor Public Affairs to proceed with plans to educate the public on the city’s financial history and economic development.
At its meeting Tuesday night, the council voted 5-0 for a $30,000, four-month partnership with the public relations firm to work on the Millbrae Financial Sustainability Program.
The city’s fire suppression assessment tax is up June 30, 2013 and the tax is a potential June ballot measure. Millbrae voters originally passed the $144 annual fee for fire services on single-family homes in 2004 as one solution to address the city’s budget crisis, which began in 2001. It was extended in 2009 and the tax brings in about $1.2 million per year to the general fund, according to a staff report.
City Attorney Joan Cassman said it’s not a ballot measure yet and hiring the firm is one piece of a bigger pie. The city is looking at its financial situation and plans to educate the public on city government finances. The city is even looking at increasing utility costs, as sales and hotel taxes fluctuate, she said.
“As we as cities move forward, there are infrastructure needs to address,” Cassman said. “So we need to get the message out to the public. We don’t have the resources internally to try to help educate constitutes.”
Cassman said the city is aware that it can’t use public funds to advocate for ballot measures.
Government Code Section 8314, prohibits elected state or local officers from using or permitting others to use public resources for campaign activity, according Richard Hertz, communications director for the California Fair Political Practices Commission. However, a public agency can use public funds to provide educational information to the public about a ballot measure — generally a “fair representation of facts” relevant to an election matter.
“Frequently, the line between unauthorized campaign expenditures and authorized informational material is unclear,” Hertz said in an email. “The determination of the propriety of the expenditure may turn upon such factors as the style, tenor and timing of the publication; no hard and fast rule governs every case.”
Councilmembers were in favor of the plan, citing that they lack city staff to help with educational efforts.
It’s important to educate citizens on how the city has restructured its debt and been extremely responsible in how it’s proceeded, said Mayor Gina Papan.
“The city has cut wherever it can, but you still have to pay for things,” she said. “We’re saving money now because of an investment we made with Siemens with solar roofs. The city has a great future ahead, but we can’t do it alone. We need to keep the public informed and transparent. The city is working really hard to provide efficiencies and keep up with rising costs that impact our city.”
Resources have been dwindling, said City Manager Marcia Raines.
“If we face an emergency, wouldn’t have the funds,” Raines said. “A structural deficit will continue to grow, with staff reductions, consolidations and combined code enforcement. We are proficient in sustainability programs, but we are a 65-year-old city and have facilities, roads, what’s under the roads, that are aging.”
She added that the city still needs to pay for employee benefits and that the city’s streets are at the bottom of state and countywide levels of sustainability.
“Routine neighborhood streets are in disrepair,” she said. “Collectively, we’ve got to come up with some solutions. The council and public need to make huge decisions about the future of the city, looking at water and sewer infrastructure needs and capital needs. The fire assessment is not the solution, but it’s step one.”
Vice Mayor Wayne Lee said the intention of hiring the firm is to gather information.
“This is the way that most municipalities do it,” he said. “It’s common practice and to not do so would not be diligent on our part. Balancing budgets doesn’t mean anything if there’s no meat in the budget. The question is how are we going to bring programs and provide services? City staff has taken major hits in the last years and we’re looking at ways to do economic development.”
In other city business, the council discussed the possibility of dissolving the city’s Millbrae Business Advisory Committee due to lack of productivity from the group, a number of councilmembers said.
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