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Sonoma County supervisors show support for mental health, homelessness tax measure

Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday signaled support for a ballot measure that would raise $25 million annually to plug what officials say are gaps in county mental health and homelessness services.

The proposed quarter-cent sales tax would end in 10 years unless extended by voters. It would allocate nearly 25% of the annual revenue toward behavioral health facilities, and nearly half of the money would go toward emergency psychiatric or crisis services, according to a preliminary spending plan reviewed by the board Tuesday.

Other funding categories include mental health and substance abuse outpatient services, behavioral health services for the homeless and investments in transitional and permanent supportive housing.

Citing systemic state and federal funding problems, mounting community concerns around mental health and homelessness and polling that shows strong support for a ballot measure even in the face of a pandemic-led recession, county health officials and supervisors say a ballot measure this November makes sense.

“I know it’s a precarious time to ask for a tax initiative, but if not now, I don’t know when,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board’s senior incumbent and a longtime advocate for increased mental health funding.

The board must give official approval to the measure at a July 28 meeting, and then again during an Aug. 4 meeting, both likely formalities as supervisors on Tuesday were wholly supportive of the measure.

“This is an opportunity for us to stand united, recognize the need that we’ve had for a very long time, and try to create the space and the support for this in our community,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, the board chair.

It will cost the county $280,000 to $420,000 to place the measure before voters in November, an election the board views as ripe with opportunity.

For more than a year, Sonoma County has employed campaign firm Terris Barnes Walters Boigon Heath, Inc., to chart a course toward a successful ballot measure, signing in May 2019 a $450,000 contract with the San Francisco-based company.

The company has tested public perception of the ballot measure as early as August 2019. Despite a steady dip in support coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic, the most recent publicly available polling still shows 71% support, well above the two-thirds threshold required to pass a specific tax increase in California.

Supervisor David Rabbitt sought to couch the strong polling as the key driver in any move toward a ballot measure the board may take. And he staked the potential for success in November on the county’s ability to tell its own story about the results of its efforts to reduce homelessness.

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

Barbie Robinson, Department of Health Services director and interim executive director of the Community Development Commission, cited the board’s investments in homeless services, including nearly $12 million in late December to help close a sprawling homeless encampment along the Joe Rodota Trail in west Santa Rosa, as evidence of strong outcomes after large investments.

She said the ballot measure would result in fewer people living on the street, and “individuals becoming more productive members of our community.”

“We want to be held accountable to that,” Robinson said.

The county has seen two-straight years of decreases in homelessness, including a 7% drop in 2019, according to preliminary data from the county’s annual homeless count this past spring.

The proposed tax for mental health and homelessness support was the second tax measure to get a nod of approval this week, joining the extension of a roads tax the county’s transportation authority board of directors sent to the ballot Monday.

The board’s pollster, EMC Research, also did polling on the $26 million transportation tax, often mixing the measures in phone polls to determine public appetite for both tax questions. The results? Positive.

But Ruth Bernstein, president and CEO of the polling group, added a note of caution amid an unprecedented period in human history.

“A lot has changed in the last three months of our lives,” she said. “It is possible that a lot will change in the next three months. Voter mood and volatility is moving around a lot more than I’ve ever seen in my 25 years of doing this.”

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

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