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Voters weigh Measure O as mental health, homeless services funding solution

For stories about what is on the local ballot, go here

For the PD editorial board voter guide, go here

Sonoma County voters are weighing in on a ballot measure that would bolster county spending on mental health and homeless services by adding a new quarter-cent, countywide sales tax — one of eight local revenue measures on local ballots in the Nov. 3 election.

Measure O is expected to generate at least $25 million a year over 10 years for the county to use in mental health programs and to help curb chronic homelessness in the county.

The long-envisioned measure, championed by elected leaders and a broad swath of the health and nonprofit sector, has strong support among residents according to county polling.

But business interests, led by the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, Santa Rosa Metro Chamber and North Coast Builders Exchange, are opposed — taking a defiant stand against all proposed tax increases and extensions on local ballots, regardless of their purpose.

Upgrades to mental health and homeless programs have long been held up as top regional priorities. If Measure O secures the needed two-thirds majority, Sonoma County would become the latest California county to pass a dedicated sales tax for mental health funding or homeless services. In 2017, Mendocino County voters approved a half-cent tax and Los Angeles County voters authorized a measure that raises $355 million a year.

County health and housing leaders say a more aggressive, coordinated approach may be the only way for county and municipal entities to stanch the bleeding from years of health services cuts at the state and federal level.

“Every jurisdiction in the state is struggling with mental health funding except for those that have taken matters into their own hands and passed measures like Measure O,” said Barbie Robinson, Sonoma County’s director of the Department of Health Services and interim director for the Community Development Commission, the county’s lead homelessness agency.

Measure O would split the annual proceeds into five categories, with the largest share, 44%, earmarked for emergency psychiatric and crisis services. That would include the county’s stabilization unit for people experiencing an acute mental health crisis, inpatient hospital services and the county’s mobile mental health support team, viewed as a key alternative to law enforcement in certain situations.

Another 22% of the funding would support the county’s residential care facility and transitional housing for individuals discharged from crisis services. The county would put 18% of the money into mental health services at children’s shelters and at residential care facilities, as well as permanent supportive housing, substance abuse programs and more.

The remaining 14% of the funding is pegged for behavioral health and other services for homeless residents and 2% would go toward capital funding for county’s supportive housing pool.

In a county with nearly 3,000 homeless residents, where a small handful account for $162 million in health, criminal justice and other costs, county leaders have stressed that an additional $25 million in programs won’t fix every problem. But Robinson said that without a voter-approved tax, the county stands to lose ground on many of the same fronts.

“To be direct and honest, without Measure O, we’re looking at some painful reductions to programs and services,” she said. “We know that will have detrimental impacts to vulnerable populations.”

The measure faces no singular, organized opposition — the business groups that have allied against local tax measures have bankrolled a campaign to persuade voters to reject all eight local tax measures, including city-sponsored measures. The basic message on social media and in mailers from the group calling itself the Sonoma County Tax Moratorium Coalition is “No, not now.”

“Our thought process is there are just too many financial burdens on businesses and our residents right now,” said Tawny Tesconi, Sonoma County Farm Bureau executive director. “This is not the time to come to the voters for more money. This is the time for the government to figure out how to move resources around and live within their means like the rest of us are having to do.”

Tesconi said the coalition wouldn’t “get into the weeds” about any particular measure.

Campaign finance reports that would show how much has been spent by the business coalition are not due until Oct. 22, so it remained unclear how much the group has poured into the campaign. To date, no donation or spending reports have been filed.

Passage of Measure O would increase sales tax in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol to 9.25%. In Cotati, which has its own 1-cent sales tax extension on the ballot, the rate would be 9.5%, the highest countywide.

For stories about what is on the local ballot, go here

For the PD editorial board voter guide, go here

A group of Sonoma County residents that led a push last year to clear a sprawling homeless encampment in west Santa Rosa is urging a “no” vote on the measure because they say the county’s plans just aren’t clear.

“Measure O speaks to mental health, but so far the county has no track record of success,” said Brenda Gilchrist, an organizer of Citizens for Action Now! “More tax money solves nothing if there isn’t a plan.”

Robinson, though, has promised results, including a pledge to continue the county’s two-year trend of reductions in overall homeless numbers while boosting access to critical mental health services.

“I think one of the biggest issues is access,” she said. “Because of limited resources, people haven’t been able to get the right help at the right time.”

Santa Rosa City Councilman Jack Tibbetts, who works as the executive director of the nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul of Sonoma County, supports passage of Measure O, though he and other homeless service providers recently signed onto a letter seeking changes in the county’s approach to coordinating homeless services and related funding.

“I think it’s silly that this community wants results on homelessness and won’t fund this,” Tibbetts said. “It angers me. It angers me that the business community won’t support this. I’m pretty fired up and die-hard about Measure O.”

A long list of other supporters have lined up to back Measure O, funneling nearly $40,000 into the Yes on Measure O campaign. The largest single donation, $25,000, came from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 551 Issues PAC. Union representatives could not be reached for comment.

County supervisors, in their decision to advance Measure O to the ballot, cited county polling showing most residents support a sales tax increase to fund mental health and homelessness services.

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

Starting in August 2019, the company has tested public standing for a ballot measure. Despite a dip in support coinciding with the coronavirus pandemic, the most recent publicly available polling still showed 71% support — well above the two-thirds threshold needed to pass a specific tax measure.

“The polling is extremely strong, and I have not talked to anybody who said they weren’t going to vote for it,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a longtime advocate for increased mental health funding. “If not now, when? This is a community that’s been ravaged by multiple disasters.”

Supervisor David Rabbitt this summer said the polling and sustained public interest in a ballot proposal was the key driver in putting the measure before voters.

“Obviously, we’re supportive of the measure,” Rabbitt said at the board’s July 14 meeting. “Also, the polling suggests the public is supportive. It will be reported that the board placed it on the ballot, but the correct way to report that is the public supports that.”

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

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