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Will That Be Cash, Check or Charge? Council Consultant Polls Taxpayers on How They Want to Pay For New $250M Swim Center

Last week City Hall opened up an online survey to measure resident sentiment about a new International Swim Center, Swim Hall of Fame and community recreation center complex. The survey asks respondents about their interest in different programs at a new complex, how much they would use them, and how much they would be willing to pay in fees and public money for them–including how much they would pay for a commemorative brick at a new Swim Hall of Fame?

None of those questions touch on the core question that the City asked 500 registered likely 2018 voters in a June telephone poll: How much were they willing to pay in new taxes for all this, and the most persuasive way to sell those taxes?

The results of the poll were presented at a July 18 Santa Clara City Council 5 p.m. study session, which also reported the newest estimate for the project, $250 million, 25 percent more than when the City Council approved the project last year. The new swim center has been in the works since 2014. The study session didn’t include analysis of the project’s economics.

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City Council hired private consulting firm Project Finance Associated, Ltd. (PFAL) in April to figure out how to build the new swim center. Tulchin Research was hired by PFAL to conduct the phone poll.

Tulchin Reseach VP Corey O’Neill reported that the survey of 500 voters–1.1 percent of the City’s registered voters–got a “positive response” to a “revenue measure,” saying that there was “more support for a broader parks measure” than just a tax levy for the swim center alone.

The City Council and the Parks and Recreation Department spent two months discussing the details of the phone survey, according to Tulchin Research.

The Weekly received a copy of the phone poll in a public information request.

The 12-page survey began by asking respondents to rank their approval of City government and a laundry list of local and regional issues including “cost of housing” and “maintaining the 10 p.m. curfew at Levi’s Stadium”.

The rest of the phone survey presented respondents with a something-for-everyone list of potential features. Details about the actual availability of any of these wasn’t included.

In addition to rating the importance of building a new Olympic training facility with “competitive swimming and diving facilities,” and a new Swim Hall of Fame, respondents were also asked to rank the importance of a “community swim and recreation center,” “warm water pool for therapy, instruction and exercise,” “spaces for childhood education, child care and afterschool programs,” “a multi-use 400-seat theater” beautifying the Creek Trail, energy efficiency, and 600 to 1,200 new parking spaces.

Following the list of possible features, respondents were asked about options for bond funding: sales tax, property (parcel) tax, hotel tax and user fees. These were described as a “modest temporary tax increase” to be supplemented by private funding. So far, in three years the project has garnered one donation.

Respondents were then asked about the most persuasive arguments for the project: having a “world class” swim center, hosting Olympic events, providing space for therapeutic needs, providing childcare and swim classes, offering another swimming pool for senior citizens (in addition to the two currently at the Senior Center), the existing swim center’s disrepair and the “few people” using it because of its condition, new “well paying” jobs for residents, and bringing “new life” to Central Park.

“They Weren’t Asking for Public Input”

One voter that was called said she thought the entire point of the phone poll was to determine the best way to get voters to approve a bond measure.

“They were asking about things like increased sales tax, property tax and hotel tax,” she said. “It really irritated me that they wouldn’t take comment. You had to answer only with the options given and no explanation was given.

“They weren’t even asking for public input,” she continued. “No ideas could be submitted. My answer was always ‘whatever privately funds it because that’s what the residents were OK with.'”

“They wouldn’t tell me who was behind it. The survey guy kept saying he couldn’t answer. I would ask for more details on the choices and he would say ‘I can’t elaborate.’ It [seemed like] saying ‘we failed, so how would you like to pay?'”

This voter doesn’t believe that these tax increases would be temporary.

“No tax increase is ever temporary,” she said. “They were even asking the best statement to sell the increases to voters. [I told them] I’m not fine with any of them. The City said it was going to be privately funded. They need to deliver on that.”

The poll’s language skews toward persuading people to approve the project, the voter said.

Respondents were given two choices: Repair and maintain the current swim center without tax increases and leave the taxpayers “responsible for …serious injuries as a result of the aging facility,” or “Build a new swim center …provide additional public facilities… and upgrade competition standards to bring revenue to the City” funded by private contributions and “a small temporary tax increase.”

The Council directed PFAL to conduct another phone survey with a larger sample and to cut down the number of questions. The current Parks and Recreation survey can be found on the City website: santaclaraca.gov/government/open-city-hall labeled “Santa Clara’s Central Park Survey.”

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