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Alameda County sales tax for essential services

Measure W

TL;DR: Raises the sales tax one half cent county-wide to fund Alameda County essential services.

Measure W is a county-wide ballot measure that would raise sales tax throughout Alameda County by a half cent ($.005 or half a penny) for ten years. The measure says that Alameda County can use the money for essential services, “including housing and services for those experiencing homelessness, mental health services, job training, social safety net, and other general fund services.” It’s currently estimated that the tax will provide $150 million annually.

What happens if Measure W passes?

The sales tax in Alameda County will increase. We took the estimated revenue ($150 million) and divided it by the population of Alameda County (1.67 million) and calculated that each person will pay around $90 per year. (Opponents of Measure W calculated its cost by household, which is why their number is so different from ours.) The money will go into Alameda County’s general fund where it can (but may not necessarily) go toward services that address the County’s growing homelessness crisis.

Supporters of Measure W say it will be used to fund essential services for people who are homeless. The Home Together 2020 plan warns that if the County does not begin investing in services to prevent and abate homelessness, the problem will only increase. The Home Together plan estimates that roughly 8,000 people in the County are homeless, and 79% of that group–over 6,000 people–are living either entirely unsheltered or in tents or vehicles. The Home Together plan estimates that to get to a point where the County could proactively help people as they become homeless so that the experience is a brief rather than chronic condition, the County would have to invest $164 million per year for five years–less than the amount that Measure W is projected to raise. Supporters have compiled a list of focus areas for the County to invest in, should it raise the necessary funds.

If Measure W is passed, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors will appoint a citizen oversight committee. At least one independent audit will be conducted of the Measure W funds every year.

Potential problems with Measure W

This tax, like all sales taxes, is regressive because it will be applied uniformly to all citizens, regardless of their income.

Opponents of Measure W argue that because the Measure W money goes into the general fund, it may not actually be used for homeless services. They say that makes the tax a “blank check” for the County and there is no guarantee that the money will actually be spent on the services described in the Home Together 2020 plan. (They also say some rather nasty things about specific people working for the County, which we found a little weird.)

During the Board of Supervisors’ most recent budget negotiation, nearly every department was asked to cut their budget in response to COVID-19-related general fund shortfalls. An exception? The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. A worst case scenario for this measure is that the un-earmarked funds don’t go to essential services for unsheltered people but to punitive programs run by the Sheriff through Santa Rita Jail. There’s nothing we can find in the text of the measure itself that would prevent this outcome, and it would be up to the citizen oversight committee to ensure that the funds were being used properly.

Vibes

Do you trust us? How you vote on Measure W really depends on whether you trust the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to appoint people with integrity to the citizen oversight committee. (Crucially, one incumbent is retiring at the end of this term, and much will depend on who fills their seat.) That said, it’s hard to vote against anything that would help alleviate the pain and suffering unsheltered people endure in Alameda County, and this voter sincerely hopes that if the measure passes, the Board manages to appoint savvy people who are genuinely committed to helping unsheltered people to the oversight committee.