The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, in a bid to address a chronic funding shortfall for road maintenance, is moving ahead with plans to place a quarter-cent sales tax on the November ballot, where the proposal would join a half-dozen other measures from cities and schools seeking tax increases from voters.
The move, foreshadowed by the county for more than a year as one possible fix to its road repair woes, has seen scant public debate so far, with an initial outline of the tax measure surfacing little more than two weeks ago.
The tight timeline has given cities, which would share in the tax revenue, little chance for formal input. At least one city council — Petaluma’s — has declared it will not support the county-driven proposal, concerned it could undermine voter support for the city’s own sales tax measure this fall.
Still, despite those political headwinds and other questions swirling over how local municipalities might spend the additional tax revenue — estimated at $537 million over 20 years — county officials argued that the beleaguered local road network needs a sustained infusion of cash if it is to be fixed at the pace the public demands.
“We can’t afford to wait,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. “We all need to give a little bit to ensure that we have a better quality of life, and that means investing in roads.”
Proceeds from the tax would be divided among the county and its nine cities through a formula weighing population and the number of road miles in each jurisdiction. The measure would raise $20 million in the first year, with the county getting $8.7 million, Santa Rosa receiving $5.4 million, Petaluma $1.8 million and lesser amounts for the seven other cities.
The proposal advanced by the county Tuesday would be a general sales tax measure, requiring only a simple majority to pass. An accompanying advisory ballot measure would require voters to affirm the use of the new revenue for road projects, including city streets and the 1,382-mile network overseen by the county.
The arrangement sidesteps the higher hurdle that would come in a special sales tax for roads, which would require a two-thirds majority to pass.
At Tuesday’s board hearing, a dozen speakers including road funding advocates, cyclists, public safety officials, school board members, environmentalists, construction workers and transit advocates addressed supervisors. Most voiced support for the tax plan.
Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, said he wanted to make sure the extra revenue would be used to improve roads using the so-called complete streets approach, which calls for upgrading bike paths, lighting and sidewalks along with the pavement.
“What really excites me, and concerns me, is getting city commitment for the complete streets approach,” he said. “Otherwise, this is just great. We’ll help you in whatever way possible. It will be a challenge to do the education and outreach to make sure this passes.”
The move comes four years after the county touched off a political firestorm over roads when officials suggested that funding was so tight and some roads in such poor condition that the county would have to let them crumble and return to gravel and dirt.
Under a stopgap plan to avoid that scenario, over the past three years supervisors have injected an additional $8 million from the county general fund to repair about 100 miles of county roads — a small fraction of the overall network, with a maintenance backlog estimated at $268 million.