It’s an oddity of our election politics that approval of a specific tax that clearly lays out how the money would be spent requires a two-thirds majority but a general purpose tax that comes with no strings attached and little certainty requires just a simple majority. Common sense would suggest that those be reversed.
But common sense is in short supply in these matters. And it’s one of the reasons that Sonoma County is going to the public on June 2 with a general tax, a quarter-cent increase, with hopes that voters will have confidence that it will be spent for a specific purpose — to provide desperately needed funds to repair county roads.
If we had our druthers, this would not be in question. This would be a specific tax, one that spelled out how the funds would be allocated, adding assurance that they would not be siphoned off for some other purpose. But given the recent failure of such measures — including one in November that called for a mere one-eighth-cent increase to help the county’s floundering libraries — we’re persuaded that’s not an option.
As such, given how Measure A is structured, we encourage voters to support it when it comes time to vote.
Here’s why. Sonoma County has an unparalleled road mantenance problem, and there’s no outside help coming. The county has 1,384 miles of roads in its unincorporated areas. That is more than double that of Santa Clara County, the next largest at 684 miles. It’s more than three times that of Marin (420 miles) and Napa (446) and more than double that of Solano (600).
But because of the complex formula for how gas tax funding is allocated, which is based in part on population, Sonoma County is grossly underfunded. For example, Orange County gets 16 times more funding although it has one-third as many unincorporated roads.
As a result, Sonoma County is one of only a handful of counties that have been forced to use general fund money for road maintenance. And it is falling behind on keeping up with the problem.
Measure A would raise an estimated $20 million a year that would be divided between the county, which would get 44 percent, and the cities, which would get the rest. For the county, this would mean an additional $8.7 million a year, leading to the upgrade of some 650 miles of roads. Cities would receive an allocation of funds based on a Sonoma County Transportation Authority formula that weighs a community’s population and road miles equally.
We understand the concerns raised by the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association that the money could be siphoned away for other things including salaries and pensions. But we believe their are safeguards to ensure that doesn’t happen.
First, once Measure A is approved, the county could contract with the Transportation Authority, thus commiting those funds for the duration of the tax. Supervisor David Rabbitt has said he would support such a contract, and we would encourage other supervisors to do so as well.
Second, supervisors have already committed to a plan allocating $40.8 million for roads over the next four years. Given that, we see little likelihood that such current funding will be siphoned away either.
Voters also can take comfort that this tax will expire in five years. If the money is not spent the way it’s intended, it won’t be around for very long, with little chance of being renewed.