Sonoma County sales tax measure would help improve parks for 10 years

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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.”

The Sonoma County Taxpayers Association argues the county should and would be able to find the money it needs, without having to seek voter approval for new taxes, by reigning in pension costs that have cut into funding for “every other vital government function.”

The taxpayer association’s ballot argument against Measure M, written by Executive Director Daniel Drummond, cites a 2016 citizen advisory report that found the county had paid $269 million in excess pension costs over the previous decade.

The result is a “steady march of sales tax measures paraded before voters every election cycle” for things like parks, libraries and road repairs, Drummond wrote.

“(U)ntil the supervisors get serious about pension reform, we cannot support giving them any more money,” he wrote.

Hart said she thinks voter support for the parks improvement measure has remained steady, around the 72 percent mark in polling last winter.

It’s clear local residents love their county parks, whether or not they’re prepared to pay more, based on visitorship figures that demonstrate a doubling of daily use over the past five years, park officials said. Park visitation now exceeds 5 million annually.

Through months of community outreach, the county has developed an expenditure plan apportioning potential Measure M money for one-time investments in facilities and infrastructure, maintenance and operations, natural resource conservation, fire prevention measures and a host of other needs.

Also, it would allow for more investment in erosion measures and replanting necessary after the devastating wildfires of October 2017, which severely damaged Hood Mountain Regional Park, as well as several others.

“We have to respond to the impacts from the fire, and we have to plan, manage the parks for the future fire risk and, frankly, climate change,” Hart said.

In Cloverdale, where officials are nearing completion of a master plan to guide an overhaul of venerable City Park — upgrading everything from picnic tables, playgrounds and ballfields to restrooms and stormwater drainage — the nearly $1 million a year the city would reap from Measure M would come in handy, City Manager David Kelley said.

“This is a highly valued community park, and it’s fair to say a significant amount of funding would be dedicated to this project,” Kelley said.

Santa Rosa, the county’s largest city, stands to collect more than $1.9 million each year. With planning underway for two priority projects in south Santa Rosa — Roseland Creek and Kawana Springs community parks — passage of Measure M would come as good news.

But since last fall’s Tubbs fire, which burned through all or part of 10 city parks, destroying Coffey Park completely, the city also has to pay a share of nearly $7 million in estimated repairs at a time that other fire-related expenses continue to mount, Interim Recreation and Parks Director Caluha Barnes said. They include three bridges that need replacement — “significant expenditures,” she said.

“Certainly the city would welcome the revenue,” Barnes said. “It would help with work in the parks that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to do.”

Petaluma Mayor David Glass said his city’s share, about $659,000 year, would allow for long-term goal setting in a city where parks have not kept pace with residential development.

“We struggle and are leaking oil everywhere, not just in parks,” Glass said. “But it’s been identified as a goal over and over again, as far as parks.”

The added bonus for all concerned, Hart said, is that passage of local funding for parks by the Nov. 6 election puts Sonoma County in the running for a cut of $40 million in one-time state money available through Proposition 68, a $4.1 billion bond measure approved by voters in June.

Revenue amassed through the new sales tax also would position the county to apply for matching grants, allowing officials to leverage money collected locally for outside funds.

At least $327,000 has been spent on the Measure M campaign, according to county election finance records.

The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria is supplying most of it, donating more than $286,000 toward the cause in addition to providing office space and advocacy, advancing what tribal Chairman Greg Sarris described as a commitment to environmental stewardship that would expand as the tribe paid down the debt from its 5-year-old casino and a nearby hotel.

“We see the parks and preserving the parks as an opportunity to preserve the land as our ancestors did ... in terms of using the park as a teaching mechanism — how to, first of all, enjoy and experience what we have of the natural world, and secondly, an opportunity to take care, to steward it, but in the aboriginal way,” Sarris said.

The tax measure is not intended to replace existing municipal and county parks funding, and each government will be required to demonstrate a maintenance effort.

Reports accounting for Measure M revenues and expenditures must be submitted annually by each city and the county for review by an appointed seven-member citizen oversight committee and for use during the county’s yearly audit.

The tax would go into effect April 1, 2019, and sunset March 31, 2029.

“There is no dedicated source of funding, and that’s why everything’s falling so far behind,” said Maxene Spellman, co-chairman of the Yes on Measure M campaign. “And this is such a small price to pay for such a huge benefit.

“It feels like it’s going to pass,” she said, “but unless we keep reaching out to the very end, there’s no guarantee.”

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

Editor’s note: This story has been revised to correct a typo that resulted in an errant figure for the Graton Rancheria donations supporting Measure M.

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