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Sonoma County child care advocates eye new local sales tax measure

Our Kids Our Future, a Santa Rosa-based campaign effort that formed in July 2021, is leading a push to put a quarter-cent countywide sales tax on the ballot in November.|

Breakdown of the sales tax initiative

How would it affect taxpayers?

The proposal envisions a quarter-cent, countywide sales tax to support child care and children’s health care services.

How much would it raise?

$22 million annually

Where would the money go?

First 5, with oversight from an appointed advisory board, would administer the funds. The tax measure’s language stipulates the 60% go to increasing child care access and workforce growth, and 40% go to children’s health services.

Who is organizing the campaign?

Our Kids Our Future, a local campaign formed in July 2021

When will it come to voters?

The campaign must collect at least 21,038 signatures by July 19 to qualify for the November 2022 ballot.

Years of wildfires, floods and the COVID-19 pandemic have raised the obstacles facing Sonoma County’s dwindling child care providers, but a new political coalition is aiming to boost the shorthanded network via a new tax measure.

Our Kids Our Future, a Santa Rosa-based campaign that formed in July 2021, is leading a push to put a quarter-cent, countywide sales tax on the ballot in November.

Revenue from the tax, which the group projects to be $22 million annually, will go towards easing access to child care and child health care, both critical issues well before the pandemic.

“The need is pretty universal, it doesn’t matter if you have kids or not,” said Ananda Sweet, Our Kids Our Future’s board president. “Even if you can afford child care, child care is still really hard to find, there’s an access issue.”

The county has 490 operating child care facilities, down 21% from before the pandemic. It has lost 52% of available child care slots, however, since March 2020, according to Melanie Dodson, executive director at the Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County (4Cs), a nonprofit that offers early childhood services for families and tracks local industry data.

A chief driver of the challenges facing the beleaguered early child care industry is its inability to retain employees because of low wages, according to local experts including Dodson.

“The average (early child care) worker is lucky if they make $14 an hour,” said Angie Dillon-Shore, executive director of First 5, a local child and family services agency.

The high cost of living in the North Bay and additional expenses that come if they have children of their own spur many early child care workers leave for more stable, well-paying jobs like those in the hospitality industry or in the K-12 education system, Dillon-Shore said.

“They leave the career they did out of passion and love and interest in child development,” Dillon-Shore said.

The pandemic further stressed the industry, as child care providers suddenly found themselves on the front lines as essential workers. Many veteran workers retired as a result, Dodson said.

Providers found themselves struggling with a reduced workforce and reduced capacity, while trying to meet legal staffing requirements, said Dodson.

Under the proposed tax measure’s language, First 5, with support from an advisory council, would administer the the funds raised by the quarter cent sales tax.

The revenue would be divided with 60% going to support pay for employees, workforce growth and expansion of the child care network as a whole. The remaining 40% would support perinatal and early childhood mental health, pediatric screening and treatment, and assisting children facing issues like homelessness, according to Our Kids Our Future.

Members of the advisory council, representing parents and early childhood professionals, would be appointed by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

First 5 Sonoma County was first established in the late 1990s as an agency under the county’s health services department, as part of a statewide initiative to tackle the harms of smoking and handle tobacco tax funding. In 2019, First 5 became independent from the county and operates with a nine-member commission.

While California’s tobacco tax has provided the bulk of that funding, that revenue stream has dwindled from about $6 million annually to $3 million in recent years, Dillon-Shore said.

First 5 has been using reserves to sustain services but will hit its “fiscal cliff” in 2025 without a new revenue source, Dillon-Shore said. She added that the organization does pursue other funding options like grants to help cover costs.

First 5 is not part of the tax-measure’s campaign, but Dillon-Shore has personally endorsed the effort, according to Our Kids Our Future’s website.

The proposal is the latest to seek a countywide hike on sales taxes.

Since 2016 at least eight sales tax measures have come before Sonoma County voters, including the quarter-cent sales tax for mental health services (Measure O) and transportation sales tax (Measure DD) both of which passed in November 2020.

In March that same year, voters rejected the half-cent sales tax for fire protection (Measure G) and the 30-year extension of a quarter-cent sales tax for SMART (Measure I).

Dan Drummond, executive director of the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association, said it illustrated how unpredictable voter appetite for tax measures can be. He questioned whether the steady stream of tax measures was the right way to fund public services.

“It’s just a nonstop parade of services that are not being provided by the government, and its another nickel here, its another dime there,” said Drummond. “We need all these things. My concern is the lack of responsibilities from the elected officials who manage the revenues that we have.”

Drummond said he was not familiar with the proposed child care tax and so could not say much about it “one way or the other.” He noted that an issue like access to child care and child health services would speak to many voters in the county.

“Who’s going to argue with child care, pediatric services and all that?” Drummond said.

In addition to Measures O and DD, the other existing countywide sales taxes include:

  • A quarter-cent tax to support agricultural preservation and open space protection, extended in 2006
  • A quarter-cent tax approved in 2008 to support development and operation of SMART, the North Bay commuter rail system
  • A ⅛-cent tax to support expanded county library services and hours, passed in 2016
  • A ⅛-cent tax to support new county and city park amenities and maintenance, passed in 2018

For the local network of child care providers, the 2017 wildfires served as a primary “crisis point” because it prompted schools, including early childhood centers, to close for days, Dodson said.

Though the pandemic further burdened child care centers already struggling to bounce back, Sweet believes it raised awareness of just how difficult it is to find child care because of slot shortages, high costs and labor shortages.

“I don’t think pre-COVID people really understood how important it was to pay child care workers a wage that’s sustainable to keep them in the industry,” Sweet said.

The campaign appears to be building steam and has picked up endorsements including all five Sonoma County supervisors, at least five of Santa Rosa’s seven council members, state Sen. Mike McGuire, state State Sen. Bill Dodd, Assemblyman Jim Wood and Reps. Jared Huffman and Mike Thompson, according to Our Kids Our Future’s website.

Though the Board of Supervisors could place the proposal on the ballot by itself, Our Kids Our Future intends to get the measure on the ballot via voter signatures, said Dennis Rosatti, a Sonoma County political consultant working on the campaign.

That pathway could help the proposal clear what is typically a daunting prospect for tax measures: In California, tax hikes added to a ballot by a governing body need a two-thirds approval to pass, but a measure that qualifies by signature collection requires only a simple majority.

“The voter threshold is lower because when you come in with those signatures, you’ve already shown that there’s public interest,” Rosatti said. “By showing that there’s significant public interest we’re already coming in at a higher degree of public support.”

To get on the ballot in November, the campaign needs to collect by July 19 at least 21,038 valid signatures — 10% of the total votes cast by local voters in the last election for governor, according to the Deva Proto, the county’s election chief.

Volunteers have been collecting signatures since late January and the group had collected 2,700 as of Tuesday, according to Rosatti.

“I think people are really starting to understand the value of the upstream investment piece,” Sweet said. “Here locally (there’s) such an understanding because we’ve been through crisis after crisis.”

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or emma.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MurphReports.

Breakdown of the sales tax initiative

How would it affect taxpayers?

The proposal envisions a quarter-cent, countywide sales tax to support child care and children’s health care services.

How much would it raise?

$22 million annually

Where would the money go?

First 5, with oversight from an appointed advisory board, would administer the funds. The tax measure’s language stipulates the 60% go to increasing child care access and workforce growth, and 40% go to children’s health services.

Who is organizing the campaign?

Our Kids Our Future, a local campaign formed in July 2021

When will it come to voters?

The campaign must collect at least 21,038 signatures by July 19 to qualify for the November 2022 ballot.

Emma Murphy

County government, politics reporter

The decisions of Sonoma County’s elected leaders and those running county government departments impact people’s lives in real, direct ways. Your local leaders are responsible for managing the county’s finances, advocating for support at the state and federal levels, adopting policies on public health, housing and business — to name a few — and leading emergency response and recovery.
As The Press Democrat’s county government and politics reporter, my job is to spotlight their work and track the outcomes.

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