Approval of Measure M brightens future for Sonoma County park upgrades

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Sonoma County voters last week approved a sales tax hike that will provide the first-ever dedicated funding stream for the county’s Regional Parks system, as well as support for city parks and open space.

Now comes the step that local officials and park advocates have eagerly anticipated: setting priorities to guide how those millions of dollars will be spent each year to preserve and expand recreational opportunities countywide.

“It’s unbelievable to have the community respond to support us in this way this year — 70 percent of the voters is massive,” Sonoma County Regional Parks Director Bert Whitaker said last week. “Measure M sets us on solid footing over the next decade to continue responsibly making connections to parks, trail systems and investing in our existing 57 parks.”

The countywide one-eighth cent sales tax is expected to raise $123 million over its 10-year life span to improve parks in the regional parks system and in the county’s nine cities.

The tax begins April 1, 2019, raising the cost of taxable merchandise by 3 cents for every $25 spent. Food and other nontaxable merchandise are excluded.

About $12.3 million will be available each year to tackle deferred maintenance, improve facilities, provide education, and create trails and access points to new parks. Money will also be available to develop access to public open spaces, such as the new Tolay Lake Regional Park outside Petaluma or Carrington Ranch Preserve on the Sonoma Coast, said Caryl Hart, a longtime parks advocate who co-chaired the Yes on Measure M campaign.

“We’re so thrilled,” said Hart, a former Sonoma County Regional Parks director. “We love our parks so much and yet we never had dedicated funding. We’re finally able to join the rest of the Bay Area counties in having funding directed to parks systems. It’s going to be incredible.”

The passage puts the county in the running for a portion of $40 million in one-time state money from Proposition 68, a $4.1 billion bond measure approved by voters statewide in June, Hart said.

It will also help the county and cities apply for matching grants, leveraging local dollars to secure outside funds.

About $8 million annually — roughly two-thirds of the total revenue — will be directed to the Regional Parks system, which encompasses more than 11,000 acres. A three-year work plan will be presented to the Board of Supervisors next spring, Whitaker said. A citizen’s oversight committee will be established to review expenses and receipts.

In the next fiscal year, Measure M will provide funding to maintain 8 miles of new trails in Taylor Mountain Regional Park, Whitaker said. New trail markers, fencing and water for grazing and a new natural play area will also be installed. Money may also be used to help fund matching grants to acquire an additional 60 acres at Taylor Mountain, including Cooper Creek, and to create future trail connections for residents in southeast Santa Rosa, he said.

It will also fund the sewer system replacements, revamped restrooms, and the widening of the bike path at Spring Lake Regional Park, along with major renovations at Maxwell Farms Regional Park and Larson Park in Sonoma.

The rest of the nearly $4.1 million will be allocated each year to the county’s nine municipalities based on population.

Santa Rosa, the largest city, will get an estimated $2 million a year. Measure M funds will be prioritized for rebuilding city parks impacted by the October 2017 wildfires, said Kristi Buffo, marketing and outreach coordinator for Recreation and Parks. Funds will also benefit Roseland Creek and Kawana Springs community parks, both currently in planning phases, she said.

“After the fires, we struggled to keep our parks in a condition that’s most enjoyable for our community,” she said. “This influx of money is appreciated so we can continue to provide the community with all the benefits of our parks.”

Petaluma, the county’s second-largest city, is expected to receive about $711,600 a year. That could help boost staffing levels, bolster weed abatement, repair tennis courts, walkways and trails or replace play structures, Assistant City Manager Scott Brodhun said. The city will create a spending plan next year, he said.

“We’re not used to dealing with an influx of money,” he said. “I’m really excited for the county and all the cities.”

The approval of Measure M comes on the heels of the 2016 failure of Measure J, a half-cent sales tax increase in unincorporated areas that fell just shy of the two-thirds supermajority needed to pass.

This time around, the smaller tax hike envisioned by Measure M, and the benefit to cities, helped lend momentum to the campaign, Hart said, as did more time to promote the proposal to voters.

“In the county you see that a lot,” Hart said. “It takes two times to get things over the finish line.”

“If voters didn’t approve it this time, it would have been very hard to get the Board of Supervisors to put it back on the ballot,” she added. “Everyone knows you get two tries and that’s it.”

Measure M was heavily supported by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, who poured in more than $290,000 to help ensure its passage as part of the more than $380,000 Yes on Measure M campaign. The tribe also backed Measure J two years ago.

Greg Sarris, chairman of the Graton Rancheria, said the tribe viewed the parks tax measure as a way to help fulfill its environmental stewardship goals.

“I’m happy that, this time around, our donation paid off,” Sarris said last week. “But we would have kept doing it, because we believe that this is our mission, our ancestors’ mission — to take care of the land — and now we can do that with everybody here.”

Staff Writer J.D. Morris contributed to this report.

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