There’s no doubt that more funding is needed to repair Sonoma County’s 1,384 miles of roads, one of the largest road systems in any unincorporated area in the state. The question is where those funds will come from.
Last year, Sonoma County supervisors went to voters with a ballot measure seeking a quarter-cent sales tax to raise funds to improve the county’s byways. Untrusting voters rejected the measure on a vote of roughly 62 percent to 38 percent.
But the supervisors are back with a new proposal, one that doesn’t raise as many dollars as last year’s Measure A but makes much more sense.
Measure L calls for a 3 percent increase in the county’s transient occupancy tax, otherwise known as the hotel tax, which is charged to guests of hotels, bed and breakfasts and all other vacation rentals in Sonoma County. It also applies to recreational vehicle parks and campgrounds. For every $100 in hotel charges, this amounts to a $3 increase.
The county has not raised its hotel tax in 24 years while many nearby cities and counties have increased theirs. Even with this hike, the county’s hotel tax would be at or below those of local jurisdictions including Napa County (12 percent), San Francisco (14 percent) and Healdsburg (where residents will be voting on a ballot measure to increase its TOT from 12 percent to 14 percent).
If approved, Measure L would mean nearly $5 million a year in additional revenue for the county. How would that be spent? Given that this comes in as general fund money, it could realistically be allocated however the supervisors want. But since 1986, supervisors have held themselves to a policy of dedicating 75 percent of transient occupancy tax funds to the county’s advertising and promotions program, which funds a variety of services from visitor centers to tourism promotion to maintenance of existing county park facilities. Funds also have been available for emergency services, local economic development, creation of workforce housing and improvements of facilities such as veteran’s halls. Funds from the program also have been used to promote cultural and artistic events such as the Transcendence Theatre in Sonoma Valley and the Sonoma International Film Festival.
As for the other 25 percent, supervisors say they intend to dedicate the bulk of it to upgrading local roads. That would mean an additional $1.2 million in addition to the roughly $11.6 million already allocated for roads.
As Supervisor Shirlee Zane noted when the board voted unanimously to put this on the ballot, “Tourists take a toll on our roads.”
It’s true that it’s always easier to tax someone who isn’t able to vote, that being Sonoma County visitors in this case. But given the impacts from the rise in tourism over the past 24 years, especially from the increased popularity of tasting centers and winery events, increasing the transient occupancy tax and using as much of the money as possible for road repair makes sense. Some funds also will be used for such needs as enforcement of codes that govern vacation rentals. Raising hotel bed taxes to offset such impacts of tourism is overdue.
The Press Democrat recommends a yes vote on Measure L.