PD Editorial: The wrong fix for west county schools, emergency services

A tax on hotel rooms is a mismatch with declining enrollment and understaffed fire and rescue services.|

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

Bodega Bay’s fire district is understaffed and overworked.

The West County Union High School District faces a quandary: two comprehensive high schools with deep roots in their respective communities, plus a continuation school, and a shrinking pool of students, with budgets stretched to the breaking point.

Sonoma County supervisors want to attack both problems by raising taxes on hotel rooms.

We aren’t persuaded that there’s a nexus between tourism and declining enrollment.

Bodega Bay’s paramedics respond when visitors dial 911, just as they do when district residents call for help. Yet only a fraction of those visitors are staying in west county hotels or vacation rentals.

The school district and the fire district have real financial challenges, but lodging taxes aren’t the solution.

Measure B, on a special March 2 ballot, would increase the tax on west county hotel rooms and vacation rentals to 16%, second highest in the state. The rate would remain 12% in other unincorporated areas of the county.

Half of the revenue would be dedicated to emergency medical services in the west county and efforts to merge the Bodega Bay fire district, and possibly other districts, with the Sonoma County Fire Protection District.

The other half would initially be earmarked for consolidation efforts involving the high school district and 10 west county elementary school districts. After that process is finished, the money would be available for education programs in the west county at the discretion of the Board of Supervisors.

Don’t the supervisors have enough to do without adding education to their agenda?

Our primary reservation involves the west county’s hotels and other lodging businesses. Many of them already are struggling with the economic impacts of the pandemic. Raising room taxes would give tourists an incentive to stay in other parts of the county — or go somewhere else altogether — simultaneously hurting west county businesses and cutting into tax revenue.

There’s also the matter of equity.

As justification for a lodging tax, Measure B supporters note that 80% of the people transported by Bodega Bay fire’s ambulance live outside the district. However, a substantial number of visitors are daytrippers from other parts of Sonoma County or elsewhere in Northern California. The added cost would fall solely on those staying in west county lodgings.

Sonoma County supervisors are planning a sales tax measure for the November ballot to fund fire prevention programs. The merits of such a tax are a subject for another day, but it would extend to a larger cross section of west county visitors than a tax on a subset of the county’s hotel rooms.

There is a second, related tax measure on the March 2 ballot. Measure A would impose a $48 per parcel property tax lasting three years in the West County Union High School District.

Measure A is earmarked for counseling, libraries and fine arts programs at El Molino, Analy and Laguna high schools. But the objective is to build a budget cushion so school district consolidation studies can be completed before deciding whether it’s necessary to close El Molino.

We have long advocated for consolidation of Sonoma County’s 40 school districts, usually with stiff resistance from the districts. Perhaps opposition is easing, but unifying elementary and high school districts won’t reverse the declining number of high school-age youth in the county. So, a three-year tax hike only postpones an inevitable choice: seek even higher taxes, or close a school.

The Press Democrat recommends no votes on Measure A and Measure B.

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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