Parcel tax increase proposed for Petaluma parks and recreation

A group of Petalumans has launched an effort to place a parcel tax on the November ballot that would pay for improvements to city recreational facilities, from walking trails to the community pool to athletic fields at local parks.

The ballot initiative would create a $52 annual parcel tax for 15 years, which organizers say will raise $12 million over that time.

J.T. Wick, a volunteer with Petaluma Friends of Recreation, said the grassroots effort grew out of a realization that if local residents wanted better facilities they couldn't wait on city government to make it happen.

"When it comes to taxes and fiscal policies, as an American, I'm frustrated; as a Californian I'm completely depressed," he said. "But as a Petaluman, this is something we can address. We can do it ourselves."

The tax, which would be charged to property owners as an assessment on annual property-tax bills, is a considered a "special tax" because the proceeds are restricted to a specific purpose, said City Attorney Eric Danly. Thus, the measure would need a two-thirds majority to pass.

Volunteers with Petaluma Friends of Recreation are raising funds and will begin gathering signatures this week. They need to turn in about 4,600 valid signatures from registered Petaluma voters by May 17 for it to qualify for the Nov. 6 ballot.

Committee co-chairwoman Carol Eber said the plan calls for leveraging the tax revenue to buy bonds that will also pay for long-term maintenance of the facilities. The committee chose projects that already have some funding.

The committee also has tried to keep the issue away from City Hall politics, which they say can be divisive and polarizing.

The ballot language calls for an oversight committee of citizens to be appointed by the city parks commission — not the City Council — in an effort to de-politicize the effort as much as possible, Eber said.

"There's a high level of distrust of the city and how it would spend the money," she said. The oversight committee would also be charged with disclosing to the public how much money has been raised and how it is being spent.

Political consultant and Petaluma resident Brian Sobel said most taxes face challenges during difficult economic times, but specific measures to support schools and recreation show strong support.

"The blowback comes from the public who thinks the money raised goes into a hole someplace," he said.

"The more they can lock down the specific projects and the spending plans, the better off they are."

The Petaluma group, working with city parks officials, created a priority list of potential projects. A list of 24 was whittled to eight projects that organizers say benefit every part of town and a variety of interests and age groups.

"This is not just ball sports," said Wick, who also is active with Fiends of the Petaluma River. "We want to make sure there is access to the river, to use the trails, to use the Lucchesi (Community) Center, the Polly Hannah Klaas Performing Arts Center. We want to make sure there are cultural amenities that are preserved and enhanced."

The single largest recipient would be $6.1 million for East Washington Park, a planned 25-acre complex on city-owned land that would include three all-weather fields for soccer, football, baseball and lacrosse.

Other projects include: $2.1 million to expand Prince Park for all-ages activities, $1.3 million to repair the Petaluma Community Center roof and other projects, $750,000 to create accessible playgrounds, resurface tennis courts and renovate park facilities; $500,000 for renovation of the David Yearsley River Heritage Center, $500,000 for continued renovation of the Polly Klaas center, $350,000 for resurfacing trails and adding new trails for hiking, running and biking and $300,000 to renovate the swim center.

Eber said a survey of residents showed strong support for a tax of greater than the $52-a-year proposal, although she acknowledged overcoming the anti-tax sentiment will be a challenge.

"We think it's going to resonate because we're keeping this as far away from city government as possible," she said. "This is us, citizens of Petaluma, willing to pay for things we think are important."

Contact Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.