Sonoma County voters reject Measure A
Sonoma County voters strongly rejected a proposed quarter-cent sales tax on Tuesday, turning down by a wide margin a bid by government officials to raise money to repair crumbling county roads and city streets.
With 65,354 mail-in ballots counted and 319 of 319 precincts reporting, Measure A secured a mere 37 percent of the vote, with 63 percent of voters opposing the proposal. Measure A supporters acknowledged the returns would likely hold in final results and spell defeat.
The outcome represents a major blow to county supervisors, who drove the sales tax initiative and have told voters for the past six months that raising taxes was their best shot at fixing the county’s disintegrating road network, ranked among the worst in the Bay Area for more than a decade.
“This is horribly disappointing,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, a key Measure A supporter, who watched the early returns come in at Mary’s Pizza Shack in downtown Santa Rosa, where other campaign allies had gathered Tuesday night. “I thought we had the momentum, but it’s clear to me that those who voted today do not want this approach ... It also shows me the anti-tax sentiment out there.”
The measure needed a simple majority to pass.
Critics of the proposal, including taxpayer watchdog groups, said the outcome should serve as a wake up call for supervisors, who they say need to do more to address the county’s still-rising pension costs - up 500 percent since 2000. They feared that additional revenue in the county general fund would have been used to cover employee pay and benefit costs.
“This shows that there was a real concern about the county’s unsustainable pension costs, and it sends the message that the Board of Supervisors needs to continue its forward march toward pension control,” said Dan Drummond, executive director of the Sonoma County Taxpayers’ Association, which opposed the measure. “And I think there was some real angst and suspicion about the way this thing was put on the ballot.”
The loss follows defeats at the ballot box last November for a number of tax proposals, including one to support county libraries and another to bolster government services in Petaluma. In this case, many county voters said that local governments, including the Board of Supervisors and city councils, couldn’t be trusted to spend the money as they said they would, on roads, with a smaller amount set aside for public transit programs.
“We don’t trust the supervisors,” said Richard Weston, 69, of Healdsburg. Both he and his wife cast votes against Measure A.
“We would have voted for it if the money were earmarked for roads,” said Carolyn Weston. “It’s not like we’re anti-tax, we just wanted an iron-clad promise, and we didn’t get that.”
The ballot measure committed revenues - up to $100 million over 5 years - to general government purposes, including public safety, roads and other essential services. Rabbitt said supervisors backed that approach after polling indicated that a specific tax measure, requiring a two-thirds majority, would not pass.
Measure A was slated to raise $20 million per year for the county and its nine cities, with 44 percent going to the county and the rest going to cities, split up based on population and road miles.
Supervisors have said repeatedly that without the injection of additional tax revenue, the county’s 1,384-mile network is destined to fall further into disrepair. Without the roughly $9 million the county would have received through Measure A, Rabbitt said the Board of Supervisors would have to make do with the current $10 million annual investment from the general fund on roads.
“I’m proud of what we’ve done so far,” Rabbit said. “We’ll continue that spending, and we’ll be looking for ways to increase it.”
Strong backers of Measure A, including the road advocacy group Save Our Sonoma Roads, expressed frustration Tuesday night.
“This tells me there is a huge problem with lack of trust in Sonoma County government,” said Craig Harrison, co-founder of SOS Roads. “Everyone has said that roads are a big problem, and they’re willing to invest in them, but they don’t trust elected officials with their money. I think supervisors and county employees need to take a good long look at themselves - this is no rippling endorsement for them.”
Traffic at the polls was very light Tuesday, with nearly three quarters of the county’s registered voters now casting ballots by mail. Election officials said they expected a low turnout of about 30 percent.
It’s unclear whether the Board of Supervisors would again ask voters to tax themselves to help fix their roads. Rabbitt said publicly this week that he does not plan to seek a tax increase again this year.