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Sonoma County sales tax extension for roads, infrastructure approved for November ballot

When Sonoma County voters mail in ballots or head to their polling places in November, they’ll decide if the countywide sales tax that supports roads, other infrastructure and bus service should be renewed for another 20 years.

The county transportation authority’s board of directors on Monday voted 11-1 to approve seeking early extension of the quarter-cent tax. Concerns over economic uncertainty related to the coronavirus pandemic failed to weaken support among board members for placing the measure on the ballot, in what is thought the optimal time during a presidential election to pass it when voter turnout is expected to be high.

“It’s just so important that we continue down this path to make sure that we have this measure solidified in place going forward,” Supervisor David Rabbitt said Monday during the board’s virtual meeting. “COVID throws a wrench in everything, but if you still believe that the turnout offsets the risk of the costs and the timing, now’s the time to go. I think that does offset that and give us the best chance to be successful.”

Board members were encouraged by new polling data completed last week by Oakland-based EMC Research showing support among likely voters has not waned since the fall, when nearly 75% of those surveyed said they would back the renewal of 2004’s Measure M. The same percentage of randomly polled residents of voting age showed they would support the proposed extension if it appeared on the November ballot, despite the financial downturn.

To pass, the measure requires a 67% supermajority among voters, and when offered an opposition argument, support dropped to 57% among those polled, said Ruth Bernstein, EMC Research’s president. The phone and email poll has a margin of error of about 4%, but that level of decline showed the need for a concerted campaign effort, which supportive board members said they’d kick off immediately.

“It’s all-important that we start making those phone calls and doing our jobs,” Cloverdale Councilwoman Melanie Bagby said. “We have very compelling success stories to get out to our folks. I know that we’re taking a chance, but … this is game time, it’s go time. So yeah, I’m ready to go.”

The county’s transportation authority has, for example, leveraged Measure M revenue to obtain hundreds of millions of dollars in state and federal grants to complete road and bicycle and pedestrian projects. On the $1.2 billion Highway 101 Marin-Sonoma Narrows lane widening, tax revenue has helped secure funds at a 5-to-1 ratio, according to the agency.

The approval Monday makes the extension, which is projected to deliver $26 million in revenue a year, the first of at least two countywide measures poised to land on the November ballot. The county Board of Supervisors will discuss a new quarter-cent sales tax to pay for enhanced homeless and mental health services for the next decade at its Tuesday meeting.

As many as six of the county’s cities also are considering taxes of their own to support their general funds. They would require a simple majority to pass. Healdsburg and Sonoma already have approved theirs, while Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Cloverdale and Cotati each are working toward finalizing one before the Aug. 7 deadline to make the November ballot.

A crowded ballot, particularly during economic turmoil, will underscore the need for well-funded campaigns to help the Measure M extension pass, said Brian Sobel, a political analyst and former Petaluma councilman. An extension effort always is slightly easier than a new tax, he said, but none will be a layup this fall.

“I don’t think any of these pass just because you put them on the ballot. In fact, just the opposite,” Sobel said. “And if it’s the backdrop of COVID where people are struggling and struggling, … they will look at their own personal situation and decide if they want to pay for a tax.”

In addition, the last two attempts to pass countywide tax measures each failed in March. A new half-cent tax to bolster firefighting services garnered about 65% support, narrowly failing to surpass the needed two-thirds threshold, and SMART commuter rail’s early extension bid was hammered, receiving less than 54% of the vote.

The risk and cost of a repeat failure was too much to overcome for Windsor Councilman Sam Salmon to back the county transportation board’s push for renewal. Windsor was also the only municipality in the county that opted against lending its formal support for the extension.

Salmon said he voted no on Monday to carry that message forward, citing worries over its timing in the upcoming election. The board comprises a dozen representatives from the county’s nine cities plus the county supervisors.

“It is a difficult time, for all of us, and we get that,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, chair of the transportation board. “But … we need to be aspirational. And we need to build a transportation system network that works for all — not just for a couple years, but for the next 20 years.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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