Supporters of a one-eighth cent sales tax that would raise an estimated $115 million for city and regional parks in Sonoma County over 10 years are optimistic less than two weeks from Election Day.
But many remember all too well the experience of two years ago when a different county parks measure narrowly lost at the ballot box. It finished with better than 65-percent approval, but still 1,100 votes shy of the two-thirds supermajority it needed to win.
This proposal, Measure M, was tailored to ensure it reaches the two-thirds threshold. It would cost consumers less — one-eighth cent for each dollar spent vs. one-half cent in the earlier iteration — and it now would improve parks in all of the county’s nine cities, in addition to those in the Sonoma County Regional Parks system.
Still, nobody is willing to risk the deep disappointment of the last time around, so scores of volunteers are pushing their case to voters until the last minute, staffing phone banks, canvassing door to door and distributing fliers at public events.
It’s generally accepted that about 1 in 4 voters automatically rejects any new tax, whatever it may be, so every vote is critical, said former Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart, co-chairwoman of the Yes on Measure M campaign.
“Everyone knows this is our last chance,” Hart said. “You get, really, two tries in this county, and in our mind, this is it. This is our moment. For a lot of reasons, if it doesn’t pass now, we’re probably not going to be able to bring it back.”
Passage of Measure M would, for the first time in Sonoma County history, provide a dedicated revenue stream for parks such as those that have existed for decades in most other Bay Area counties, Hart said. It would mean parks no longer must compete with public safety, roads and other general budgetary expenses for development and maintenance work, advocates say.
At one-eighth of a cent, the tax would cost consumers 3 cents for each $24 they spend on taxable goods in Sonoma County or any of its cities. Food and other nontaxable items would be excluded.
For each year it’s collected, it would generate a projected $11.5 million — two-thirds of it, or almost $7.7 million, for the 56 parks, trails and other properties in the county park system. The remaining third, about $3.8 million, wouold be divided among cities and towns based on their populations.
That means all the cities get a “fair share,” even smaller ones, like Sonoma, that often get left out of county initiatives, Mayor Madolyn Agrimonti said.
For Regional Parks, which oversees more than 11,000 acres of park land — twice the acreage of 10 years ago, due largely to conservation land acquisitions — the new revenue would allow the county to chip away at deferred maintenance projects, add trails and access points to new parks. And there would be more money to tackle development of places like Tolay Lake Regional Park, which opens to the public today.
Without a dedicated funding source, “it’s very difficult — almost impossible — to maintain a park system and build a park system,” said Hart, who was county parks chief for seven years. “We absolutely have to have this money to take care of our park system, or we’ll be looking at it really going downhill.”