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Sonoma County supervisors vote to approve tax hikes for November ballot

Sonoma County voters this November will be asked to approve two new tax hikes - one to support the county’s celebrated park system, and another that could generate millions of dollars a year to help fix the county’s beleaguered road network and develop workforce housing outside city limits.

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to place the two tax measures on the November ballot.

One is a 10-year, half-cent sales tax increase that could raise nearly $10 million per year for Sonoma County Regional Parks to develop new education programs, improve existing parks and fast-track the opening of future sites.

The other proposal - the transient occupancy tax increase billed by supervisors as a tax on tourists - would raise hotel bed taxes at thousands of lodging facilities outside city limits from 9 to 12 percent.

Supervisors voiced support for it, arguing that taxes on overnight stays at hotels, campgrounds and vacation rentals outside city limits are much lower than those paid in cities.

“We do have true and real impacts of tourism in Sonoma County,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt. “It’s a wonderful thing that people want to be here … we need to make sure we can take care of those impacts.”

The hotel bed tax increase, which requires a simple majority to pass, would generate roughly $5 million per year, according to county estimates.

Because it is a general tax measure, revenue would go to the county general fund and could be used for any government purpose. Supervisors said.

However, if the bed tax measure passes, they intend to spend three-quarters of the revenue offsetting impacts of tourism: development of workforce housing, boosting revenue for fire and emergency services and generating money for road repairs.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo, the board chairman, floated an idea to use the remaining quarter of the expected revenue to increase the county’s current general fund contribution for roads by $1.2 million. At present, the county allocates $11.6 million per year for road repairs.

“Tourists take a toll on our roads,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane. “We need to recognize that the vast majority of people who are going to pay for this increase do not live here … they do have impacts on our quality of life.”

Despite their unanimous vote, supervisors were less unified about the sales tax proposal to support Regional Parks.

Despite polling that indicates strong public support for the increase, Rabbitt and Carrillo questioned whether the measure would pass.

“I’m horribly conflicted,” Rabbitt said, referencing Measure A, the county’s failed attempt last June at passing a countywide sales tax increase to generate money for road repairs. “The polling on the measure was completely different than the result at the ballot box. I feel very skeptical of polling ever since.”

The tax proposal for parks is different than Measure A, because it is a specific tax measure and requires two-thirds approval to pass. It would raise the tax rate in unincorporated Sonoma County from 8.25 percent to 8.75 percent and apply to purchases outside city limits. Funds would be allocated specifically to Regional Parks to pay for deferred maintenance, improvements at parks, opening additional park lands, new educational programs and wildlife habitat restoration projects.

“Parks in Sonoma County protect our critical natural resources, with all the values and benefits they bestow, from protecting water quality to providing habitat for a broad variety of species,” Caryl Hart, director of regional parks, told the board. “But without proper funding, as we have seen with the California State Parks system, much of this is at risk.”

Funding for Regional Parks, with 56 parks and trails totaling 12,000 acres of protected open space, has remained largely flat over the past decade, while its properties have increased by 2,000 acres, according to Hart.

Park visitation also has doubled over the past five years, with more than 5 million visits last year.

Sonoma County, as well as Cloverdale, Petaluma and Windsor, have the lowest tax rates, at 8.25 percent. Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Healdsburg and Sonoma are slightly higher, at 8.75 percent.

Sebastopol’s sales tax rate is 9 percent, and Cotati’s 9.25 percent. The state sales tax cap is 9.5 percent.

The proposed increase drew wide support during Tuesday’s public hearing, though some people were concerned an increase would disproportionately impact people who live outside cities.

“If this park system is so important, and I believe that it is, then we all need to pay for it - not just those of us in unincorporated Sonoma County,” said Forestville resident Barbara Samson.

In a follow-up interview, Hart said the proposal is partly targeted at tourists.

“It’s not a tax on unincorporated residents, it’s a tax on purchases. A big chunk of revenue from those purchases comes from wineries and dining out,” Hart said.

“The goal is to spread out the costs of Regional Parks among visitors to the county who also use the parks.”

The cost for placing both tax measures on the ballot could climb as high as $560,000, according to county officials.

The hotel bed tax increase proposal will appear on all Sonoma County ballots in November, while the sales tax measure will only appear on ballots of voters who live in unincorporated Sonoma County.

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 707-526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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