Sonoma County supervisors poised to advance tax measure to bolster mental health, homeless services

A tax increase for mental health and homeless services long envisioned by Sonoma County leaders eager to expand the county’s work in both areas is poised to secure approval this week from the Board of Supervisors, advancing the measure voters in November.

The proposed quarter-cent sales tax boost would generate $25 million during the next 10 years for behavioral health facilities, emergency psychiatric services, homeless services and more.

County supervisors on July 14 expressed strong support for the measure, which has been discussed since at least the summer of 2018 and was advanced by the board July 28, with its second formal vote Tuesday to place the measure on the November ballot.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board’s senior incumbent and a longtime advocate for mental health services, predicted unanimous board support for the measure.

“I don’t think there’s anything that people would be willing to fund right now more than mental health services,” Zane said.

A funding boost for mental health services was first envisioned in the wake of a second-straight year of budget shortfalls in the Department of Health Services’ Behavioral Health division. But Zane said the bid for better funding is rooted in state funding shortfalls and cuts for mental health.

“It has nothing to do with how we manage our money at the county,” Zane said. “The state hasn’t kept up with the need.”

Sonoma County will spend $280,000 to $420,000 to add the measure to the November ballot, where it is likely to be one of two countywide sales taxes weighed by voters. The other measure seeks renewal of the existing quarter-cent sales tax for road and transit upgrades.

Polling shows strong support for both measures, with 71% supportive in a county survey of likely voters conducted in early July, four months into the pandemic.

But several prominent business groups have emerged in opposition in recent weeks, urging elected officials to put a halt to all tax proposals slated for the upcoming election, citing the economic woes that have many businesses on the ropes and near-record joblessness.

The North Coast Builders Exchange, Sonoma County Farm Bureau and North Bay Leadership Council are opposing all proposed tax increases and extensions this year. The groups are demanding that no new tax measures be put in front of voters until 2022, when the pandemic will hopefully have subsided.

But for Zane, the ongoing health crisis will only exacerbate existing mental health needs. And though homelessness has dropped each of the past two years, officials worry about the potential for sharp increases amid a devastating recession.

“I don’t think there’s any family in this country that hasn’t been affected in some way or another by mental health because of this pandemic,” Zane said. “This is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.”

Barbie Robinson, the county’ health services director and interim executive director of the Community Development Commission, highlighted in her presentation two weeks ago the Board of Supervisors’ investments in homeless services, spotlighting that spending as a key to making gains on the chronic issue.

The board earmarked nearly $12 million in late December to help close a sprawling homeless encampment along the Joe Rodota Trail in west Santa Rosa, steering 60 people into a newly created sanctioned camp near Oakmont, complete with 64-square-foot tiny homes and a variety of services aimed at placing people in more stable living situations.

Using money generated from the sales tax, should it pass, Robinson said the county could fund that model, other investments in permanent supportive housing and additional initiatives Robinson said would result in fewer people living on the streets.

During the board’s July 14 meeting, Supervisor David Rabbitt tied the county’s chance for success in November to its ability to tout its results so far.

“I know that’s going to be front and center for the campaign, to get that story out there,” Rabbitt said previously. “And I think we have a good story to tell.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or

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