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Sonoma County poised to seek 2nd fire services tax in November

Nearly a year after narrowly losing out on a $51 million funding boost for Sonoma County firefighting and emergency services, the leaders behind that failed tax hike are poised for a redo that will put a similar proposal to voters in November.

This time, Supervisors Lynda Hopkins and David Rabbitt, who spearhead fire service reforms for the county, are promising broader outreach starting sooner in this election cycle.

Rabbitt, citing a nonexistent campaign leading up to last March’s defeat, says he won’t agree to place the measure on the ballot unless he has assurances that stakeholders and political benefactors will back the measure with a strong message to voters.

“Going forward this time, for me, that will be part of my decision-making,” Rabbitt said. “I will only vote to put this on the ballot if there’s going to be a campaign to get a piece of mail out. I don’t think it takes a lot.”

The push to place the firefighting measure on the November ballot is a near-certainty after supervisors agreed in September to set aside $500,000 in PG&E settlement money tied to the 2017 wildfires to pay for the fall election.

Before that, however, there will be a special March election over a lodging tax increase meant to benefit west county fire services as well as struggling school districts in the area.

But when the countywide sales tax measure comes back, officials say, it will likely look similar to what was before voters last March — a half-cent sales tax capable of generating at least $51 million per year as part of an effort to better staff, train and equip some three dozen fire agencies across the county.

In the wake of another destructive wildfire season, Sonoma County Fire District Chief Mark Heine said there’s still great need. More than 400,000 acres were scorched between Napa and Sonoma counties, with nearly 500 homes lost in Sonoma between the Glass, Walbridge and Meyers fires.

“I think it’s just been another example … there are not enough firefighters on duty in Sonoma County to meet the threats that this county faces,” Heine said. “That’s what that measure was designed to do, and will be designed to do.”

When it came before voters last year, the half-cent sales tax known as Measure G lost 65% to 35%, just missing the two-thirds majority needed to pass.

Rob Muelrath, the consultant Sonoma County supervisors hired to study the measure and conduct polling, blamed the loss on the lack of any campaign.

“I do believe that it would have passed in March, but there was zero effort,” Muelrath said. “There was not even a campaign committee set up. There was no education effort done by anyone.”

Hopkins and Rabbitt echoed similar disappointment in the way the measure was rolled out to voters. (Muelrath has worked for both in past campaigns as a paid political consultant.)

Hopkins said it’s possible that fire chiefs may have been hesitant to jump into the political fray — a sticky area for government officials wary of running afoul of state political watchdogs. There were struggles too, Hopkins said, with fire districts’ ability to speak in a unified voice, a problem she blamed on the sheer number of districts.

But she still wasn’t sure why there wasn’t a campaign for a measure that promised millions in funding to nearly all of them.

“It’s a great question for the fire folks,” Hopkins said. “We worked on the government side to bring it forward. We thought there would be support from the fire community to form a committee and advance that.”

Neither Rabbitt, nor Hopkins, would single out any entity for blame.

Tim Aboudara, president of Santa Rosa Fire Fighters Local 1401, blamed a tight time frame following the board’s November 2019 approval of the measure.

Aboudara said he agreed that a well-funded campaign could have made the difference, and he said he believes his group would support a similar measure with a campaign this time.

“If the county were to bring back something exactly the same or very, very similar to Measure G, I strongly believe we would actively support it and contribute funds,” Aboudara said via text message. “If it looks different, we’d have to take a deeper look.”

Officials say they’re still eyeing a half-cent tax, with Heine calling the effort a “second attempt,” but what comes before voters may not precisely mirror what was rejected last March.

Both Rabbitt and Hopkins said they could foresee tweaking the spending plan to bolster vegetation management, a central focus for 2017 wildfire survivors, who continue to push county supervisors to invest more of the county’s PG&E settlement money into the ongoing effort.

“We are definitely looking at hearing from the cities and considering changes,” Hopkins said. “We also think we do have a framework.”

Rabbitt said the group is “just starting to talk” about the effort. Heine said his focus for now remains on the west county tax, which would generate funding for his district and others stretching from Sebastopol to the coast at Salt Point State Park south of The Sea Ranch.

Hopkins said the Board of Supervisors will review its annual calendar Jan. 26, with plans to schedule a workshop focused on the fire tax effort, including how to better involve city leaders.

For Rabbitt, it’s an important conversation to start.

“The idea is that the problems we’re trying to solve are still there,” he said. “So we think it’s worth another try.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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