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West Sonoma County to vote on lodging tax to support firefighting, schools

An extraordinary bid to bolster both school and emergency services funding in western Sonoma County by hiking taxes on overnight lodging is one step closer to the March ballot after earning another stamp of approval Tuesday from the Board of Supervisors.

The proposed 4 percentage point increase on hotel bed taxes would generate $2.7 million per year to be split between the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District, the Sonoma County Fire Protection District and the west county’s public schools.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who spearheaded the proposal amid vocal support and opposition from her west county constituents, celebrated Tuesday’s 4-1 vote. She was backed by parents looking to forestall school closures and classroom cuts, and fire officials in the region who say their staffing and service levels can’t keep up with demand from visitors.

Lodging operators and other business representatives, however, are not in favor of the tax, and they could present a significant challenge in the special election. A final vote by the Board of Supervisors next week will officially send the measure to the March 2021 ballot.

“It gives me a lot of hope, honestly,” Hopkins said after the meeting. “We have to realize that the existing frameworks of government are inadequate for the circumstances we’re facing. If we don’t try something new, if we let fear dominate the discussion, we’re never going to make change.”

The proposal overlaps with a tense debate in the West Sonoma County Union High School District, where trustees are studying the possible consolidation of their two main high schools, El Molino and Analy, to address a chronic, multimillion-dollar deficit.

In a sudden about-face Monday, the school board voted to advance its own parcel tax to the March ballot — a proposal it had rejected last week — and unanimously endorsed the county tax hike on lodging. The move came after a weekend meeting involving Hopkins, the school board’s chair and vice chair, the district superintendent and parents of west county school children.

The reversal represented another win for Hopkins, who last week described the hastily assembled county proposal, including the last-minute bid to funnel funds to schools — an exceptionally rare move for the county — as the biggest political risk of her career.

“I do recognize that this is unprecedented, but we live in unprecedented times,” Hopkins said.

About half of the annual funds would go to west county schools stretching from Sebastopol and along the Russian River to the Sonoma Coast north of Timber Cove.

Supervisor David Rabbitt, the board’s lone dissenting vote, said the county’s decision to wade into school funding struggles would have far-reaching ramifications, and he called the questions at the heart of the potential ballot measure “one of the more important policy discussions we’ve had in quite some time.”

His fellow supervisors did not address those fundamental questions, opting to give voters a chance to make a final decision in March.

“I’m going to tepidly support this because I have faith in the voters — because I have faith that a lot of these issues will be worked out in the campaign,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, who hung her support on the endorsement late Monday from west county school trustees.

Just last week, Jeanne Fernandes, the district board president, had said the county’s involvement was not welcome. But she thanked supervisors Tuesday for revisions in the proposal that she said made it “a little less restrictive.” Those revisions, including softened language on school closures, were key to gaining the trustees’ support Monday. An earlier draft would have barred any closures for districts accepting the money.

The Board of Supervisors also added more representation for educators or parents, and the business community on an educational advisory committee that would decide how to apportion funding between school districts in the region, of which West Sonoma County Union High School District is the largest.

The two fire districts have long supported the proposal, which originally included funding earmarked only for fire protection and emergency services, including emergency medical services that serve tourists a vast majority of the time. Up to 80% of calls in the coastal area are to assist visitors, according to county documents, and officials say it’s only fair that visitors to the county’s coast help pay those costs.

But some west county residents, as well as business owners and tourism-connected officials, have opposed the measure, which would vault the effective lodging tax to 18%, the highest in the county and higher than most neighboring jurisdictions. It would apply to hotels, inns and vacation rentals throughout west county.

“It may sound like easy money, but when tourists choose a less expensive place to stay, west county will suffer,” said one resident, who called in to Tuesday’s virtual meeting and introduced himself only as Charles.

Hopkins said the same fears were raised in west Marin County, where a similarly targeted tourism tax was passed. Tourists continue to flock to the region, she noted.

Tourism officials have lamented the impacts on local businesses, but Hopkins said those officials also benefit from $5 million in redirected lodging taxes that might otherwise be used for schools and fire districts.

“I’ve been very honest with the tourism folks,” she said during Tuesday’s meeting. “I don’t think they would be very happy if I went after that money.”

Supervisors James Gore and Shirlee Zane praised Hopkins’ actions, and Zane afterward downplayed any suggestion that the board’s foray into school funding would be a slippery slope.

“We’re responsible for everything else under the sun, but schools,” she said. “So do I think we should have a say in schools? I do.”

Hopkins, who won her second term on the board in March, has pledged to use her district funds to cover the estimated $93,000 to $186,000 cost of the election if the tax measure falls short. It will need a two-thirds supermajority to pass.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the proposed transit occupancy tax increase is 4 percentage points.

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

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