There’s no shortage of reasons why voters in unincorporated Sonoma County would want to approve Measure J, a half-cent sales tax to raise roughly $10 million a year for Sonoma County’s beleaguered parks. Funding for the system, which includes 52 parks and 175 miles of trails, has been relatively flat for much of the past decade, resulting in visitors enduring neglected paths, leaky restrooms and deteriorating benches and picnic tables.
Measure J funds would give county parks a facelift and more, providing money for everything from improving bike paths and bathrooms to expanding wildlife habitat and public education programs.
There’s no question that the money would be spent as intended given that this is a special tax that requires two-thirds voter approval. There’s also little reason to believe that this would be anything but a temporary tax given that parks soon will be getting a major financial boost from the Graton Rancheria. The tribe’s gaming compact calls for contributions up to $25 million per year to county parks for restoration and care of existing lands — once the tribe pays off its construction debt. Graton tribal Chairman Greg Sarris has said he expects the debt to be paid off at some point prior to the expiration of Measure J in 10 years. That’s encouraging.
But at the same time voters have reason to be concerned and cautious.
First, it’s not clear why the responsibility for funding parks should be put on the backs of businesses and residents of the unincorporated areas, given that these open space areas are something that all residents of the county enjoy.
Second, this initiative seems to have jumped to the top of a long list of county needs — the top one being securing adequate funding for road maintenance. That’s still a work in progress. Meanwhile, the county has also expressed support for going to voters with a tax to support universal preschool. And in the near future county officials may also be seeking an extension of Measure M, a quarter-cent sales tax increase approved in 2004 to fund highway improvements. How many of these measures should voters expect?
But the biggest concern has to do with the county’s pension problems, which cuts to the issue of why parks funding has been flat for so long.
Last year, the county Board of Supervisors commissioned a group of local accountants and finance experts to offer an independent analysis of the county’s problems in funding retirement benefits. The group found that despite reforms adopted by the Board of Supervisors and the state Legislature — and the benefits of a bull market in recent years — the county’s pension problem “is not yet close to being solved.” The committee issued a series of recommendations and called for urgent action. It has yet to happen.
For this discussion, the most important figure in the pension report is one labeled “Cost to the community of foregone services.” This is the total amount of extra dollars that have been drawn from the county’s general fund to pay for retirement benefits that were boosted to unsustainable levels roughly 10 to 12 years ago. The committee found it has totaled $269 million — or roughly $26 million a year.
And that cost is going up. The extra costs are expected to total another $741 million between now and 2030. That’s an average of $53 million a year. That’s more than half of the entire parks’ budget — and five times more than this measure would provide.