Sonoma County, Santa Rosa officials pitch parks-oriented sales tax measure on November ballot
A sales tax measure on Sonoma County’s Nov. 6 ballot would provide local public parks with tens of millions of dollars each year to improve aging infrastructure, reduce wildfire risk and open new facilities, supporters said Wednesday.
If passed with two-thirds of the vote, Measure M would institute an eighth-cent sales tax increase in cities and unincorporated areas, generating an estimated $11.5 million annually for local parks.
The money would pay for everything from bike path renovations at Spring Lake Regional Park to expanded grazing programs and the debut of long-awaited parks in and around Santa Rosa, county and city leaders said in a meeting with The Press Democrat editorial board.
One-third of the funds would go to the nine incorporated cities in the county, with amounts weighted by population, to address their parks and recreation needs. The rest of the funds would be steered toward the Sonoma County parks system, which has seen usage and the amount of land for which it is responsible skyrocket over the last decade.
Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said the county and cities are both challenged by parks that are in some cases “loved to death.”
“People really like their parks: They use them and they use them hard,” Coursey said. “We’re trying to keep up with that.”
The Sonoma County Taxpayers Association opposes the tax measure, arguing that public employee pensions have siphoned away money that should have been used for libraries, parks, road repairs and fire services.
“Until the Board of Supervisors musters the necessary will to address skyrocketing pension costs that sap our ability to fund every other vital ?government function, voters will continue to be asked to approve more and more tax increases. And until the supervisors get serious about pension reform, we cannot support giving them any more money,” the association’s executive director, Daniel Drummond, said in a ballot argument submitted against the tax measure.
Measure M comes two years after voters narrowly rejected a similar effort, 2016’s Measure J, a proposed half-cent sales tax increase that would have applied only to unincorporated areas. The 2016 measure, which would have provided county parks with an estimated $95 million over a decade, came just 1,100 votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to pass.
After coming so close to success two years ago, parks advocates returned this year with the more modest eighth-cent proposal that would apply in both cities and unincorporated areas.
Measure M would raise an estimated $77 million for county parks and ?$38 million for city parks over its 10-year lifetime. The Board of Supervisors voted last month to place it on the November ballot.
A long list of maintenance projects would benefit from the money, including bike path widening and major restroom upgrades at Spring Lake park, according to an expenditure plan presented by county parks officials.
Also proposed is money to help manage fuel breaks around various parks to lessen potential fires’ severity and scale. County officials want to make greater use of goats and sheep to naturally manage vegetation through grazing as well.
Those initiatives are among several proposals county parks officials have in mind to prepare for any future wildfires. Last year’s fires burned some 2,600 acres of county parkland - about 24 percent of the Regional Parks system’s total acreage.
“This is something that, I’ll be honest, we weren’t ready for,” Bert Whitaker, the county’s parks director, said Wednesday. “We had not contemplated anything on the scale of what we saw from the wildfire disaster.”
Santa Rosa would receive an estimated $1.9 million annually from Measure M funds. Coursey said some of the money could go toward restoring the park in the city’s devastated Coffey Park neighborhood, since federal funds aren’t expected to cover the whole bill.
Additionally, Measure M could help usher in the debut of the planned Kawana Springs Community Park in the southeast part of the city and the planned Roseland Creek Community Park in the southwest. Funds from the ballot measure could help open new county parks, too, including the Mark West Creek Regional Park and Open Space Preserve northeast of Santa Rosa and others planned in the Sonoma Valley and on the Sonoma Coast.
But county officials stressed the more urgent need for funding from the measure to help address a $20 million maintenance backlog and keep up with routine wear and tear on the 11,000-acre system that now sees more than 5 million visits annually.
“There’s only so many ways that we can do this,” said Melanie Parker, deputy director of the county parks department. “We’re really trying to keep from raising fees or reducing levels of service or putting off things so they become more expensive later.”
You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter?@thejdmorris.