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Sonoma County voters reject Measure A

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Sonoma County voters strongly rejected a proposed quarter-cent sales tax on Tuesday, turning down by a wide margin a bid by government officials to raise money to repair crumbling county roads and city streets.

With 65,354 mail-in ballots counted and 319 of 319 precincts reporting, Measure A secured a mere 37 percent of the vote, with 63 percent of voters opposing the proposal. Measure A supporters acknowledged the returns would likely hold in final results and spell defeat.

The outcome represents a major blow to county supervisors, who drove the sales tax initiative and have told voters for the past six months that raising taxes was their best shot at fixing the county’s disintegrating road network, ranked among the worst in the Bay Area for more than a decade.

“This is horribly disappointing,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, a key Measure A supporter, who watched the early returns come in at Mary’s Pizza Shack in downtown Santa Rosa, where other campaign allies had gathered Tuesday night. “I thought we had the momentum, but it’s clear to me that those who voted today do not want this approach ... It also shows me the anti-tax sentiment out there.”

The measure needed a simple majority to pass.

Critics of the proposal, including taxpayer watchdog groups, said the outcome should serve as a wake up call for supervisors, who they say need to do more to address the county’s still-rising pension costs — up 500 percent since 2000. They feared that additional revenue in the county general fund would have been used to cover employee pay and benefit costs.

“This shows that there was a real concern about the county’s unsustainable pension costs, and it sends the message that the Board of Supervisors needs to continue its forward march toward pension control,” said Dan Drummond, executive director of the Sonoma County Taxpayers’ Association, which opposed the measure. “And I think there was some real angst and suspicion about the way this thing was put on the ballot.”

The loss follows defeats at the ballot box last November for a number of tax proposals, including one to support county libraries and another to bolster government services in Petaluma. In this case, many county voters said that local governments, including the Board of Supervisors and city councils, couldn’t be trusted to spend the money as they said they would, on roads, with a smaller amount set aside for public transit programs.

“We don’t trust the supervisors,” said Richard Weston, 69, of Healdsburg. Both he and his wife cast votes against Measure A.

“We would have voted for it if the money were earmarked for roads,” said Carolyn Weston. “It’s not like we’re anti-tax, we just wanted an iron-clad promise, and we didn’t get that.”

The ballot measure committed revenues — up to $100 million over 5 years — to general government purposes, including public safety, roads and other essential services. Rabbitt said supervisors backed that approach after polling indicated that a specific tax measure, requiring a two-thirds majority, would not pass.

Measure A was slated to raise $20 million per year for the county and its nine cities, with 44 percent going to the county and the rest going to cities, split up based on population and road miles.

Supervisors have said repeatedly that without the injection of additional tax revenue, the county’s 1,384-mile network is destined to fall further into disrepair. Without the roughly $9 million the county would have received through Measure A, Rabbitt said the Board of Supervisors would have to make do with the current $10 million annual investment from the general fund on roads.

“I’m proud of what we’ve done so far,” Rabbit said. “We’ll continue that spending, and we’ll be looking for ways to increase it.”

Strong backers of Measure A, including the road advocacy group Save Our Sonoma Roads, expressed frustration Tuesday night.

“This tells me there is a huge problem with lack of trust in Sonoma County government,” said Craig Harrison, co-founder of SOS Roads. “Everyone has said that roads are a big problem, and they’re willing to invest in them, but they don’t trust elected officials with their money. I think supervisors and county employees need to take a good long look at themselves — this is no rippling endorsement for them.”

Traffic at the polls was very light Tuesday, with nearly three quarters of the county’s registered voters now casting ballots by mail. Election officials said they expected a low turnout of about 30 percent.

It’s unclear whether the Board of Supervisors would again ask voters to tax themselves to help fix their roads. Rabbitt said publicly this week that he does not plan to seek a tax increase again this year.

“It’s difficult to get this kind of thing on the ballot; we’ll have to regroup and then see, but I doubt this comes back this year,” Rabbitt said. “It’s something we’ll have to deal with in the future if people want to see their roads improved. If not, we leave our next generation a crumbled mess.”

Measure A critics painted the tax increase as a bad idea from the beginning. They took issue with the supervisors’ approach, going after a general sales tax instead of a specific tax where proceeds would be dedicated specifically to roads.

“It was a political calculation,” Drummond said. “Supervisors are asking us to trust them that the money is going to be used as they say it will be. We didn’t agree with that.”

Some voters said they would have voted in favor of Measure A if it were a specific tax measure for roads. They took issue with the ballot language, which read that tax revenue could be spent on “general government purposes such as public safety, local roads and pothole repair, senior, student and veterans transit and other essential services...”

Randy Bellamy, 68, of Windsor, said he supports the roads being fixed, but he said voted against the tax increase because he’s worried the money will be spent elsewhere.

“This would go for general government purposes, so if there’s some kind of emergency, we’ll hear ‘Whoops, we need it,’” Bellamy said. “Then it winds up going for something else entirely.”

Sonoma County voters have agreed in the past to tax themselves to pay for transportation-related infrastructure — including a quarter-cent increase for both the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit and Measure M, which funds road repairs and fast-tracked Highway 101 widening. But those increases and others going back more than two decades have all been dedicated to a specific purpose. The other recently approved sales tax increase, in 2006, was to support agricultural preservation and open space protection.

The last time voters approved a countywide general sales tax increase was in 1993, according to Bill Rousseau, the county’s Registrar of Voters. The half-cent sales tax measure was aimed at improving public safety. Numerous countywide, general sales tax initiatives have since been defeated.

Supporters of Measure A included an unusual alliance of labor, business and environmental groups. The coalition raised more than $180,000 for the campaign, largely from trade groups, construction companies and labor unions, which stood to benefit from road maintenance work funded by the tax increase. Opponents of Measure A raised no money, according to campaign finance records.

The supporters’ campaign got off to a rocky start from its beginning. The measure was first introduced last July as a 20-year tax, but the ballot proposal was pushed back twice. Supervisors said they didn’t want it to interfere with a series of other ballot initiatives during last November’s general election. They delayed it a second time in March, citing the need for more time to convince voters that it was the best bet at repairing the county’s crumbling roads.

The initiative was also significantly altered from a specific tax to a general tax proposal, after polling indicated little chance of securing a two-thirds majority.

Rabbitt attributed the defeat, in part, to shaky support from cities, which delayed formally endorsing the measure and whose representatives did not give full-throated support down the homestretch. He also questioned the March addition of ‘public safety’ to the ballot measure, which he said raised additional questions for voters on whether the money would be spent on roads.

“Hindsight is always 20-20, but if we could go back, I may have not put ‘public safety’ first on the ballot,” Rabbitt said. “No one caught that at the time.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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