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Sonoma, Marin county voters reject SMART sales tax extension

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Election Results

For more results from the March 3 election, click here.

Voters dealt a punishing blow to the North Bay’s 2½-year-old commuter rail system Tuesday, rejecting an early renewal of the sales tax that funds SMART following a bitter battle that set new records for campaign spending.

Roughly 49% of ballots counted in Sonoma and Marin counties Wednesday morning opposed Measure I, a proposed 30-year extension of Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit’s current quarter-cent tax. The tax measure required a two-thirds majority across the two counties to pass.

“It’s not death by a thousand cuts, but maybe by two or three blows,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, a SMART board member. “This measure is the first blow. It’s one massive blow that we have to overcome and pull ourselves off the canvas and figure out a strategy going forward where we can be successful.”

Voters in Sonoma County, who had been reliably more favorable to SMART in two prior elections, were divided about 50-50 with all 526 precincts reporting Wednesday morning.

In Marin County, nearly 54% of voters were in favor of the extension with 100% of precincts reporting. The combined, two-county total represented a decisive 18-point loss for the fledging rail system.

“There is absolutely no question the way one should interpret that result. I think it’s a call to action for change,” said Mimi Willard, board president of the Marin County-based Coalition of Sensible Taxpayers, which opposed Measure I. “There’s a sentiment that it’s a rogue agency, and the oversight really needs to be more robust.”

SMART, which voters approved in 2008 with 70% support after a similar ballot measure narrowly failed two years earlier, was seeking early renewal of the tax to refinance rising debt payments tied to construction of its initial 43-mile line. The rail agency extended service another 2 miles from San Rafael to Larkspur and added a station in downtown Novato in December.

SMART sought passage of Measure I to guarantee its primary revenue stream into 2059, which would have helped the rail agency save an estimated $12 million per year toward maintaining current service. Approval also would have provided money needed to help secure grant funds to extend the $653 million system north to Healdsburg and Cloverdale once the agency delivers service to Windsor, which it expects to do by late 2021 regardless of the election result.

Without the early renewal, the tax will expire in 2029 and agency officials say they will need to begin slashing as much as $9 million from the annual budget later this year, likely resulting in cuts to service and SMART’s 200-person workforce. Rejecting the ballot measure, they warned, would slow the completion of its planned 70-mile line from Larkspur to Cloverdale and could threaten the future of the train, which launched service in August 2017.

“It puts the system at grave risk,” said Jack Swearengen, chairman of nonprofit supporter group, Friends of SMART. “To impede, impair, encumber SMART at this time does serious damage to the need to solve our mobility crisis. It’s a foolish path to go down.”

Critics and supporters of the tax spent more than $3 million to sway voters — a new record for a ballot measure in the North Bay — and unleashed a torrent of mailers and advertisements on television and radio. But SMART supporters were outspent almost 2-to-1 by opponents who hammered SMART over issues of transparency, accountability and a lack of financial oversight.

Election Results

For more results from the March 3 election, click here.

The offensive proved insurmountable and SMART failed to convince voters to renew its tax with nine years remaining.

Molly Gallaher Flater, the 35-year-old daughter of prominent Sonoma County developer Bill Gallaher who almost single-handedly bankrolled the No on Measure I campaign, declined a request for an interview Tuesday. Flater spent $1.8 million — nearly twice what she originally committed to spend. Other donations to the opposition group totaled about $6,000.

In January, Flater, the chief operating officer of Windsor-based Gallaher Homes, released a written statement charging that SMART had failed to meet past promises, including full build-out, and reduce congestion on Highway 101 and greenhouse gas emissions. Over the course of two months, though, she ignored repeated requests for an interview to answer questions about her interest in the race.

To counter a deluge of anti-Measure I mailers and radio and TV ads, the pro-campaign rode a $1 million donation from the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, who own the casino outside of Rohnert Park. The group’s messaging focused on the strides SMART has made in a short period with ridership, as well as taking cars off oft-clogged freeway and in reducing vehicle emissions, while also questioning in mailers the efforts of the Gallahers against the train.

The messages didn’t resonate for Tyler Poston, 33, of Santa Rosa, who said he voted against Measure I after previously supporting the train in 2008. SMART was too expensive the one time he rode it to San Rafael, he said, and the agency has failed to meet several pledges from its original tax measure, including completion of the system.

“It just seems like they keep missing the mark with a lot of stuff,” Poston said. “It’s a 30-year tax. That’s a whole mortgage, right? A 30-year tax is a lot of time for them to go belly up and we’re still eating it. I just don’t really want to pay for it.”

The viewpoint, and others like it, has SMART and its leadership left to consider how to move forward, and what it will take to pass another sales tax measure before the existing one expires in 2029.

“The SMART train is resilient,” said Novato Councilman Eric Lucan, who serves as the SMART board chairman. “Opposition and defeat is something we’ve experienced before, and when that’s happened in the past, we’ve learned from it and tried to see what we can do better and deliver for the voter.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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