Sonoma County supervisors approve ballot measure to support local parks

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Sonoma County supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to seek voter approval of a new ⅛-cent sales tax to fund public parks, a move that drew cheers and applause from a room crowded with supporters vowing to help campaign for its passage.

The Sonoma County Parks Improvement, Water Quality, and Fire Safety Measure is set to appear on the Nov. 6 ballot for voters throughout the county.

If approved by the requisite two-thirds vote, the measure would impose a ⅛-cent tax on sales countywide for a 10-year period.

“I will be the cheerleader of all cheerleaders for this item,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents east Santa Rosa and Sonoma Valley on the board. It is, she said, “going to pass, I know it.”

Park officials said the measure would raise an estimated $11.5 million a year.

Two-thirds, or about $7.7 million a year, would be directed to county regional parks, and one-third, or about $3.8 million, would be divided among the county’s nine cities for their parks and recreational programs.

After the narrow loss of a November 2016 tax measure intended to shore up funding for Sonoma County Regional Parks, supervisors were eager to roll the dice again, though backers say much of the risk has been taken out of the equation after months of outreach and public input designed to ensure the ballot measure succeeds this time.

While 2016’s Measure J called for a half-cent tax in unincorporated areas only, parks officials this time around reduced the amount of the tax and extended both the burden and the benefit to local cities, whose own park needs are substantial, county officials said.

Regional Parks Director Bert Whitaker and his staff also have demonstrated support for the tax through polling and significant outreach to community groups, as well as discussion with leaders in the various cities.

“We have heard that people like the ⅛-cent because it’s modest,” Deputy Parks Director Melanie Parker said. They like “that it’s inclusive, and they like the fact that it’s a measure that is spread across all the county.”

The vote to put the park measure before voters this fall came the same day supervisors unanimously dropped a nascent campaign to seek funding for new housing on the November ballot, an effort to address a well-established regional housing shortage made substantially more severe by the loss of nearly 5,300 homes in last fall’s fires.

The decision Tuesday not to put a housing measure on the ballot resulted from surveys conducted last month of 600 likely voters in unincorporated Sonoma County. The polling showed a narrow majority supported a half-cent sales tax dedicated to new housing, but nowhere near the two-thirds approval that would be necessary.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane expressed strong disappointment in the lack of voter support.

“If you already have housing, you don’t feel the need or urgency,” she said.

Supervisor David Rabbitt said it may be necessary to spend more time developing a housing plan and a spending outline in order to bring voters on board, so “they understand what they get” for the additional tax.

“I think that’s vitally important,’ he said.

Passage of the parks measure would mark the first dedicated funding source for a 51-year-old park system that started with Doran Beach and now boasts 56 regional parks and trails spread across more than 11,000 acres.

Daily usage has doubled over the past five years, with more than 5 million visits to county parks logged annually.

But increasing demand, threats to natural resources, deferred maintenance and the need for dollars to open new properties acquired through the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District have made the current system unsustainable, park officials said..

While modest, the increased revenue from the tax “is significant enough to stabilize our operations, invest in natural resources and avoid fee increases,” Parker said.

Just as importantly, it could be leveraged to attract state and federal funds that would multiply new revenue by a factor of at least four, Whitaker said.

Supervisors voiced ready support for the measure, though Rabbitt said he wanted to make sure related funds would be sufficient, given rising costs and the expense of personnel needed to operate and maintain existing parks and bring new ones online.

But Whitaker said the plan to divert a large chunk of new revenue to park operations and services ensures it’s not all spent on new parks and projects.

Caryl Hart, who stepped down as Regional Parks director last year just two months after Measure J came up a mere 1,100 votes short at the polls, vowed then to champion the next effort and appeared before the board Tuesday to pledge her support in the months to come.

She noted that parks not only play a crucial role in public health and environmental protection, but also are critical to the economy, drawing tourists from all corners of the world.

In addition, passing the tax measure this fall is the only way to ensure the county is eligible for a cut of $40 million in one-time funding from Proposition 68, a $4.1 billion state bond measure approved by California voters last month, according to Hart.

Failure to put it on the ballot and pass it means “we’d be waiving our right to that funding,” Hart said.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane described the parks as providing “a huge benefit to public and environmental health.’”

“I really trust the voters to make a choice that represents our community values,” Zane said, “and there’s no doubt that our community values our parks.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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