Eighth-cent parks tax heads to Son­oma voters

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors moved to place an eighth-cent transactions and use tax for deferred maintenance and improvements in county and city parks on the Nov. 6 ballot, while deciding against sending a half-cent housing recovery sales tax to voters.

A similar parks measure in November 2016 failed by 1,100 votes, but a poll in late January showed initial support for the new proposal at between 70 and 76 percent. The park tax measure will need two-thirds approval from voters.

The half-cent tax in only unincorporated Sonoma County was intended to spur new housing development with its estimated $7.3 million in annual revenue. Unincorporated areas lost more than 2,200 homes in the October wildfires.

The results of a June poll of 600 likely voters in the unincorporated area showed the tax measure would not get the two-thirds approval to pass.

Initial support of the housing measure ranged between 43 and 51 percent. Sonoma County Community Development Commission staff said a principal objection was about the amount of the tax, and residents said they could not afford it.

Support for a quarter-cent tax was around 45 percent.

The Santa Rosa City Council plans to put a city-only 26-year bond measure for affordable housing on the November 6 ballot.

The proposed parks tax will generate $11.5 million annually for 10 years. Sonoma County Regional Parks will receive $7.6 million, and nearly $4 million will go to parks in the county’s nine cities.

Regional Parks would use some of the funding for deferred maintenance of trails, signs, buildings and other infrastructure, and improvements to playgrounds, sports fields, restrooms, picnic areas, visitor centers and vegetation management to reduce wildfire risks.

The board on Aug. 7 will consider adopting the ordinance to put the tax measure on the ballot. If approved by voters, the tax will take effect in April 2019.

Supervisor David Rabbit expressed some concern about a viable long-range financing and acquisition plan:

“We doubled park acreage in five years’ time, but not the funding.”

He said personnel expenses are Regional Parks’ highest cost and he wondered if that would become a problem within five years.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane said the county’s parks and open spaces provide mental health benefits especially after the October wildfires:

“Deferred maintenance leads to a degraded system like our county roads. … The park system is at a bare bones and very basic level.”

Board chair James Gore said without the parks tax, services would be cut and maintenance decreased further and growth of the parks system would be limited.

Speakers on the issue were nearly unanimous in their support of the parks tax measure.

Over 10 years, parks in the nine cities would receive an estimated $38.3 million, with Santa Rosa receiving $19 million. Unincorporated Sonoma County would receive $76.6 million.

The Board of Supervisors also Tuesday afternoon declared a Homeless State of Emergency in Sonoma County. If approved and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, it could provide $12 million in one-time funding from the state’s Homeless Emergency Aid Program.