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Text Tax Dough

With local unemployment at 13.5 percent, it doesn't take a scientific poll to tell most people that raising city taxes might be a tough sell. But Santa Cruz city leaders are not most people.

At the city's behest, local pollster Gene Bregman is conducting a telephone survey that gauges residents' receptiveness to raising sales taxes or utility taxes—or getting inventive and adding new taxes on cell phones and Internet-based calls—in order to support city services.

"We're looking for what kinds of things people are willing to pay for with taxes," says Santa Cruz Mayor Mike Rotkin. "We have a structural problem with our budget. The revenues the city brings in cannot keep up with the services we provide. The options, therefore, are: finding new revenue, cutting the pay and benefits of city employees or cutting services. The same residents that complain about taxes are the ones that come to us demanding that we do something for them. There's no free lunch."

The current economic downturn, which Rotkin calls a "depression, not a recession," has already led to widespread layoffs and a 10 percent cut in city employee salaries last year. Santa Cruz Assistant City Manager Martin Bernal says polls are routinely used to avoid mounting costly campaigns that are doomed to fail.

"The city has to ask itself what kind of services they want," says Bernal. "It's a tough time in our community, but the council still hears every day from residents who want to see improvements."

A tax on cellular and Internet-based (Voice over Internet Protocol) phone lines like those operated through Vonage and Skype may have the most potential for passing, Rotkin says. That's despite the 2008 failure of Measure T, a $3.49-per-month tax on cell phone lines to support 911 emergency services, which was shot down by voters 51 to 49 percent. Currently, few municipalities have tax structures in place that apply to cell phones and other nontraditional phone lines, though they're beginning to catch up. Los Angeles and Pomona passed similar measures in the last two years, and Rotkin thinks the city is ready to take another whack at passing it—but with a few tweaks.

"We were caught flat-footed with Measure T. We didn't realize how many phone lines people have," he says. "A per-household tax might work better."

—Curtis Cartier

Cheeping Out

After Prop. 2 passed, banning battery-cage egg production in the state, UC–Santa Cruz senior Eric Deardorff and his group Banana Slugs for Animals approached dining services about making it campuswide policy to serve only cage-free eggs. As of this fall, it appeared that talks with Director of Dining Services Scott Berlin were going extremely well.

"Back in early October, he told us, 'Hey, I have great news, we're going to make the switch to all cage-free liquid eggs.' That's about 90 percent of egg use on campus," says Deardorff. "We said, 'That's fantastic.'"

The new egg policy was supposed to go into effect sometime in early January, but the weeks passed with no announcement from the university. Deardorff says he learned secondhand that the deal had been scrapped.

"We said, 'OK, we're going to finally bring this issue to the campus community," he says. "We want to get the issue out there because of these broken promises."

Two weeks ago Deardorff launched to collect signatures on a petition urging UCSC dining to follow through with its cage-free plan, and says future campus leafleting and action is in the works. "We want to show Dining Services that this is something there is demand for. Most people don't know that [UC] Santa Cruz hasn't made this change," he says.

Director Berlin confirms that changes were set to go into effect in January, but he says an "across the board" 40 percent jump in cage-free egg prices quickly sank the plan. He estimates it would cost an additional $70,000 a year for cage-free eggs. "We're a national leader in sustainability, and I'd love to do everything. But a number of people have been laid off this year. How to I justify adding $70,000 in cost when that could be one or two people's jobs? Do I value chicken more than people?"

Berlin says UCSC is now in the early stages of drafting a UC-systemwide bid for cage-free eggs in order to secure lower prices. Meanwhile, Deardorff says he's already collected over 1,000 signatures from staff, students and faculty on campus. "Other schools are making these changes," he says. "It's time UC–Santa Cruz does, too."

—Jessica Lussenhop

Peace Gets a Chance

"Pro-Israel, pro-peace" may not sound like a controversial mantra for a political action committee, but in the world of Israeli-American foreign policy advocates, it's loaded with meaning. J Street, a nonprofit group of Jewish lobbyists and educators, was founded in 2008 on the premise that supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and suspending Jewish settlement building in the West Bank is the best way to achieve peace in the Middle East. Now, on the heels of a well-attended inaugural conference in Washington, the group has set up a chapter in Santa Cruz. The local group meets to discuss goals on Feb. 4 at Temple Beth El in Aptos.

"A lot of us in the Jewish community have felt alienated in Israeli politics," says Howie Schneider, co-chair of the Santa Cruz chapter of J Street. "The loudest voices on Israeli foreign policy have been from the hawkish right. So the people who want peace haven't really had a voice. We're hoping to change that."

Established Jewish lobbying groups like the hardline American Israel Public Affairs Committee have long been a force to be reckoned with. J Street, with its progressive approach, has been ruffling feathers in Washington ever since President Barack Obama invited the group's founder, Jeremy Ben-Ami, to a private November meeting along with other powerful Jewish groups.

Rabbi Paula Marcus of Temple Beth El says J Street's open-minded approach is sorely needed. "J Street is really the new kid in town," she says. "Most people realize that a two-state solution is a necessity, they just disagree on how to get there."

—Curtis Cartier

J STREET meets Thursday, Feb. 4 at 7pm at Temple Beth El, 3055 Porter Gulch Road, Aptos. The event will videolink with other J Street meetings around the country.

Big Fish

The Santa Cruz advocacy group responsible for helping turn New Leaf's seafood cases into models of sustainability has landed a very big fish indeed. On Jan. 28, FishWise announced a partnership with Safeway—that's 1,730-store, $41 billion–revenue-per-annum Safeway—to advise the grocery giant on how to make its seafood offerings more eco-friendly. FishWise director of operations Matt Owens says FishWise will take a behind-the-scenes role, assessing Safeway's seafood suppliers and making recommendations on better practices. But farmed salmon won't vanish from the case overnight.

"We have a five-year plan in place now to help Safeway's seafood department become more sustainable," Owens says. "But many of these commodity seafood products that are unsustainable will take a longer period to get them on the right track." Owens says the Safeway deal couldn't have happened without the precedent set by New Leaf, Andronico's and "our other early retail partners who were really setting the bar for the industry as a whole."

—Traci Hukill

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