Voters could approve a tax hike for the V&T Railway this year, but will not be able to do the same thing for public safety.
City supervisors voted Thursday to put an advisory question on the November ballot asking voters if the city should give $10 million to the tourist train project through a one-eighth cent sales tax in exchange for 5 percent of the ticket sales over 99 years.
There was not enough support to call for a vote on whether to add the ballot question asking to raise property taxes to pay for $8 million in new staff and equipment for the fire and sheriff's departments.
The money would have gone to things the departments said they need to do their jobs, including a new fire station, a new fire engine team and more staff to monitor the jail, traffic and gangs.
Supervisors had organized a committee last year to look at the requests of the departments, who said they needed the money to keep the city safe.
Sheriff Kenny Furlong said his department needed the money to keep up with the growing city, but Fire Chief Stacey Giomi said his department was already falling behind.
The money, he said, "doesn't take us to the future, it takes us to 2000."
The fire department will probably continue to take longer to get to emergencies, Giomi said after the vote, but they will do the best they can without the money.
"When the phone rings, somebody must go," Furlong told supervisors.
But several residents, such as Naomi Timartino, said the departments should "tighten their belts" like taxpayers have already done during the slow economy.
She said she and her husband have had to make adjustments at their business and in their family over the years and "sometimes what we have to do is realize the recourses are not there."
Most supervisors agreed the economy is too bad right now to ask voters to raise their property taxes. The hike could cost home owners several hundred dollars a year, according to city staff.
Robin Williamson, the only supervisor to support putting the public safety question on the ballot this year, was also the only supervisor to oppose the V&T question.
Asking voters to use a sales tax increase for the V&T, she said, tells voters the city thinks the project is more important than street maintenance, downtown improvements and public works projects such as fixing the smell at the sewer plant.
Mayor Marv Teixeira, who developed the proposal, acknowledged that the tax increase will be a "tough sell" and that the costs for the $55 million railroad could continue to rise, but said the tax, which will cost residents around $12 a year, is important to finish the project.
The plan will also eventually pay back the $31 million the city will have spent on the project, he said, and will provide a steady stream of revenue well after the sales tax sunsets around 2020.
The expected cost of the project was $34 million and it was expected to be done in 2009, two years earlier than is predicted now, when supervisors approved the first one-eighth cent increase about two years ago, Williamson said.
She asked Teixeira what the city was getting out of the rising cost of the state-run project.
"We're getting a railroad," he said.
• Contact reporter Dave Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1212.