Voters OK sales tax hike to fund Sonoma County parks

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2018 midterms

More Midterm Coverage: To see our other midterm election coverage, click here.

Election Results: To see live, updated results for local elections, click here.

Sonoma County voters put their support behind local parks on Tuesday, voting overwhelmingly in favor of a one-eighth cent sales tax that, for the first time in county history, would provide a dedicated funding stream for county regional parks and municipal parks.

With 551 of 551 precincts reporting Wednesday morning, Measure M was supported on 70 percent of the ballots tallied, on track to win the election and go into effect next year. It needed approval by two-thirds of those voting to pass.

“We’re thrilled,” said former Sonoma County Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart, who co-chaired the Yes on Measure M campaign. “It’s looking good.”

The countywide tax would increase the cost of taxable items by 3 cents for every $24 spent. It is projected to generate about $11.5 million annually for parks over its 10-year lifespan.

Two-thirds of the revenue, or almost $7.7 million annually, would be funneled into Sonoma County Regional Parks. The remaining $3.8 million would be divided among the county’s nine cities, based on population size, providing new revenue for operations and maintenance at local, community parks, as well.

Though he wished the early vote count was higher, Sonoma County Regional Parks Director Bert Whitaker said the initial results had buoyed supporters’ spirits.

“I’m feeling fantastic,” he said from an election party for supporters. “You don’t want count your chickens before they’re hatched, but it looks extremely positive, and we’re very excited.”

Measure M was developed in response to the November 2016 failure of a half-cent sales tax measure in unincorporated areas of the county that would have benefited regional parks only. If approved, it will mark the first time county parks have had a dedicated funding source.

While the 2016 measure earned approval from 65 percent of voters, it nonetheless fell about 1,000 votes short of the two-thirds majority it needed to pass.

After significant voter outreach and surveys, the new measure was tailored to have a broader appeal, in part because it will cost less and also benefit all communities.

Hart, who left her parks director post of seven years in the months after the original sales tax fell short, was co-chairwoman of the campaign to pass Measure M.

Citing surveys showing support for the measure in excess of 70 percent, supporters had been optimistic in the weeks leading up to the election but, burned once before, campaigned hard to make sure they crossed the finish line with the needed approval level.

They counted on voters like Brook Hill second-grade teacher Katie Koop, a Santa Rosa resident, avid hiker and “huge fan of the parks.”

She and a friend, Luther Burbank Elementary School teacher Natalie Bair, frequently walk their dogs at Spring Lake and Taylor Mountain regional parks. Koop, 31, also gets a regional park pass each year and has participated in many park programs.

She said she was thrilled to hear about the opening last month of Tolay Lake Regional Park outside Petaluma, and knows there other new parks that need to be developed, “but they need the funding to be able to do this.”

“Sonoma County is amazing, and I know that we value open space in a way that other counties don’t, in a really great way,” Koop said

Santa Rosa restaurateur Dalia Martinez and Jason Sakach, interviewed on a downtown street Tuesday, said they were likely to vote for Measure M, “anything that doesn’t go toward more development or environmental degradation,” said Martinez, 32.

But they said they understood how some voters might distrust the way public officials use tax funds.

A D Street store clerk, Alexandria Cassero, 57, said she already had cast her vote in favor of Measure M and felt particularly protective of public spaces these days, given what she feels is the risk of diminishing federal lands under the presidency of Donald Trump.

“I just feel like Trump, with the national parks anyway, seems to be threatening to gobble up some of that land, and that’s concerning,” she said.

Campaign organizers said they hoped the margin of support would rise as the remaining ballots were counted.

“We’re very happy, and I’m really happy that citizens of Sonoma County understand the importance of parks for all of us,” said Greg Sarris, tribal chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, which footed most of the bill for the Yes on Measure M campaign.

“And the for the tribe, it’s a wonderful moment, where with the county and with the citizens of the county we’ve come together to make sure that our parks and open space get taken care of.”

2018 midterms

More Midterm Coverage: To see our other midterm election coverage, click here.

Election Results: To see live, updated results for local elections, click here.

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