PD Editorial: Yes on M: A plan to improve city and county parks

Measure M would raise sale taxes throughout Sonoma County by $0.125 - an eighth of a cent - generating an estimated $115 million over 10 years to improve city and county parks.|

Choose a word to describe Sonoma County parks - popular, scenic, dilapidated, damaged.

Any, or all, of those words fit.

Annual visits to the county's regional parks have grown from 3.3 million to 5.4 million over the past five years. That's in a county with just over 500,000 residents.

Drop by a city park anywhere in the county on a sunny afternoon to see picnics, birthday parties and practically every kind of ball game.

If you look closely, you also will find neglected trails, leaky plumbing, rutted playing fields and other telltale signs of age.

You can't miss the scars at Hood Mountain, Shiloh Ranch and four other county parks in the path of October's wildfires. And it would court another disaster to ignore the thick, dry fuel that remains in those parks as well as in the parks that were spared last year.

As they survey their needs, and juggle a budget that's largely unchanged since 2008, county park managers offer a one-word description of their own: underfunded.

To remedy that, they're asking voters to approve Measure M on the Nov. 6 ballot.

The measure, which requires a two-thirds majority, would raise sale taxes throughout Sonoma County by $0.00125 - an eighth of a cent - generating an estimated $115 million before expiring in 10 years.

All of the revenue would be earmarked for local parks. County parks would receive two-thirds of the money, with the rest divided among Sonoma County's nine cities, based on population.

A sales tax for parks failed by less than 1,100 votes in 2016.

We were among the critics, but two distinctions between the unsuccessful Measure J and this year's Measure M helped change our thinking.

First, Measure J was a half-cent increase, as opposed to Measure M's eighth-cent.

Second, the 2016 measure aimed to raise the sales tax only in unincorporated areas of the county. Many voters found that confusing and even unfair - putting the added burden of funding parks open to all residents only on shoppers and businesses in the mostly rural unincorporated areas of the county.

Despite its flaws, Measure J got more than 65 percent of the vote, reflecting widespread public support in this county for parks and open space, as well as an understanding that these public assets, like our own homes, need some TLC to retain their value.

After the election, we encouraged park supporters to consider coming back with a smaller tax and including local cities in the mix. They did both with Measure M.

Our other reservation in 2016 was rising retirement costs, which are crowding out funding for parks and other public services. That's still a serious concern, and it's the cornerstone of the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association's ballot argument opposing Measure M in November.

In reconsidering our position, we take into account that Sonoma County employees contribute a larger share of their pay to retirement costs than most other public employees. Also, a case now before the state Supreme Court could give public employers greater ability to control retirement costs. But even then, local parks wouldn't be assured of adequate funding.

Measure M would add 3 cents to a $25 purchase, while producing $11.5 million a year for local parks - money that could be leveraged to secure grants and state park bond funds, stretching the impact of the local tax.

For Petaluma, that could mean more sports fields. Santa Rosa needs to rebuild Coffey Park and has plans for parks in Roseland and the southwest area. The county park system has millions of dollars in deferred maintenance and hopes to open more of its land to the public. Sonoma County park managers also want to start a natural resource management program as a bulwark against future wildfires.

That's a lot of value for an eighth of a cent. The Press Democrat recommends a yes vote on Measure M.

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