Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday backed a sales tax increase to help fund the county’s library system, a move supporters say is long overdue.
The board unanimously signaled its initial support for putting the tax increase of one-eighth of a cent to voters on the November ballot. The measure, which would require a two-thirds majority to pass, would generate an estimated $100 million for the library system over the next decade.
The proposed ordinance requires the money to be used solely to fund library operations. Specifically, the expenditure plan calls for restoring hours at the 13 branches that make up the system, upgrading facilities and extending services to “the unserved and under-served areas of the county.”
Advocates say the tax increase is needed to shore up a library system that has been beset in recent years with financial and management problems, leading to a revision of the system’s joint-powers agreement.
“To become a fantastic, world-class library system, we need to get away from the year-to-year struggles,” said Brett Lear, an Illinois native who took over as the library’s director two months ago.
The county’s library system receives almost all of its funding through a share of property taxes. The formula, which was set in 1978 with the implementation of Proposition 13, generated about $14.6 million last year, or about 97 percent of the library’s operating budget.
Lear said the amount of money the Sonoma County library receives on a per capita basis ranks it among the lowest in the state in terms of public expenditures. He said with additional revenue, library branches could extend hours, add more book titles and expand services.
The funding might also allow the library to set aside money in a capital improvement fund — perhaps $500,000 annually — for a new branch in Roseland, which he said could anchor other economic development.
“A library is a foot anchor,” he said. “They tend to not go out of business.”
The Sonoma County Library has a staff of approximately 138 full-time employees. Library commissioners authorized a one-time transfer of $535,000 from reserves to help cover a deficit in this year’s budget. But officials project the system could run through the remaining $8 to $10 million it has in reserves within five years without additional revenue.
“Our five-year projection shows a cliff,” said Tim May, chairman of the Library Commission.
A poll undertaken by the commission showed support for the new tax. But hurdles remain, aside from the super-majority needed for it to pass.
For the tax increase to take effect, legislation would be required to raise the current sales tax cap in Sonoma County. Under state law, municipalities are allowed to assess a local sales tax of up to 2 percent in excess of the statewide sales tax of 7.5 percent.
County Administrator Veronica Ferguson told supervisors she’s had discussions with Assemblyman Wes Chesbro’s staff about the Arcata Democrat sponsoring a bill that would increase the county’s cap.
The county would be responsible for the costs of the election, which is estimated to be between $121,000 and $240,000. The county would recoup the money from tax proceeds if the measure passed.
The ordinance requires Lear, the library director, to update supervisors annually about the tax collection program and what the money is being spent on, a notable inclusion given that part of the impetus behind the revision of the library’s joint-powers agreement was to give the Library Commission more autonomy, including budget authority and the ability to seek new revenue streams.