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Sonoma County supervisors send mental health, homeless services tax to November ballot

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted to place a sales hike for mental health and homeless services funding on the November ballot, saying the timing is right and the need is too great to wait despite a promise last week from local business groups to oppose any new tax.

The proposal calls for a quarter-cent sales tax increase over 10 years, which would generate $25 million per year for behavioral health facilities, emergency psychiatric services, homeless services and more. The measure, which supervisors have eyed since at least the summer of 2018, has the strong support of advocates and county behavioral health workers, many of whom spoke in favor of the initiative during the public comment portion of the board’s Tuesday meeting.

“There is no question this funding is desperately, desperately needed,” said Lis Fiekowsky, union representative for Engineers and Scientists of California Local 20, the labor union that represents most of the county’s behavioral health clinicians.

But the county’s push for a tax measure conflicts with a pledge last week from North Bay business leaders to oppose any new tax measure or extension this fall. The North Bay Leadership Council, the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and the North Coast Builders Exchange have demanded no new tax measures until 2022.

Although more than 70% of residents in a recent poll supported the mental health and homeless services measure, the two-thirds threshold needed to pass the special purpose tax, combined with active opposition from monied interests, could derail the county’s plans.

The measure is the eighth and final local tax proposal to be slated for the local ballot before Friday’s deadline. It joins one other countywide measure, the quarter-cent sales tax extension to support road and transit upgrades. Among cities, Petaluma on Monday night formally advanced to voters its new 1-cent sales tax hike to support city services. Santa Rosa, Cotati, Cloverdale, Sonoma and Healdsburg all have tax extensions on the ballot.

After voting in favor of the latest measure Tuesday, Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said the county should look to develop a Plan B and even a Plan C.

Supervisor David Rabbitt, who along with Hopkins has served as a county liaison to the business community during the pandemic, said the decision to advance the measure marked the end of the easy work.

“The hard part is getting it to pass,” he said, adding that residents supportive of the measure needed to be ready to work and campaign.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board’s senior incumbent and a longtime advocate for increased mental health funding, said she and her fellow supervisors would need to lead the way.

“We’re gonna get this done, and I’m going to campaign fiercely,” she said.

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

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