Regional Parks seeks funding – again
Sarah C. Phelps
Nearly two years after a similar funding measure narrowly lost at the ballot box, Sonoma County Regional Parks is hoping to garner support for a new tax measure it would like to see on the November 2018 ballot.
A draft proposal, expected to be presented to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors at its Wednesday, June 13, meeting (after this paper has gone to print), calls for a 1/8-cent sales tax increase over 10 years, expected to raise $11.5 million to be divvied up among city and regional parks around the county.
After Measure J missed the two-thirds majority necessary for approval in 2016, the Board of Supervisors pledged $1 million a year to help keep Regional Parks afloat – taken from the pot of money raised by the increased Transient Occupancy Tax (aka “bed tax”), approved in that same election. But that was a temporary fix. Regional Parks has a backlog of deferred park maintenance needs, plus increasing natural resource threats, recovery needs from the October wildfires, and increasing public pressure to open new parks and trails.
Regional Parks has identified about $20 million in deferred maintenance needs, but has about $200,000 in annual funding to address those needs.
Beginning with Doran Regional Park, which opened in 1967, the regional park system has grown to 56 parks, stretching from Gualala Point Regional Park in the north to Tolay Regional Park in the south. With 11,071 acres of parkland, it has developed one of the most diverse park systems in California.
Day use of regional parks has doubled over the last five years, totaling five million visits annually. However Regional Parks’ funding, from the county’s general fund, has remained relatively flat over the past decade.
“We’re consistently hearing from community members that they want us to take care of the parks we have, protect water and wildlife, and invest in trails that connect communities to each other and the surrounding open spaces,” said Regional Parks Director Bert Whitaker. “A funding source for Regional Parks is crucial. Our funding hasn’t kept pace with our growth and we need to reinvest in our existing parks. Without a dedicated funding source, our future is unclear.”
Park expansions and the development of existing parks will continue to be delayed as park maintenance needs are delayed indefinitely until grants or other fundraising can be completed. The Sonoma County Agricultural and Open Space District has become the mechanism for the purchase of a number of properties which have now been transferred into the Regional Park system. The District has also acquired a number of additional parklands that await transfer; however, longterm operations and maintenance support is not included in the District’s voter-approved expenditure plan.
The newest tax proposal has been modified to address some of the reasons Measure J may not have passed in 2016. First, it’s a lower tax at 1/8-cent versus the 1/2-cent increase sought in 2016. And second, it will apply to all sales transactions in Sonoma County. Measure J would only have applied to sales transactions in the unincorporated parts of Sonoma County. At 0.125 percent, the tax would add 3 cents to a $25 bottle of wine and 12 cents to the cost of a $100 restaurant meal.
If the new tax measure passes in November, $76.7 million would go to Regional Parks, with about $33 million to be used to update park infrastructure, develop bike paths, regional park trails, park signage, trailheads, and protect natural resources. The remaining $4.4 million a year would go to operation costs. One third of money raised would be shared with Sonoma County’s cities to maintain and improve city parks, but just how that $38.3 million would be distributed over nine cities is still to be determined. The proposal provides two options, one based on population, one based on current sales tax. Each of the nine cities have different sales tax rates. As of press time, Regional Parks plans to return to the Board of Supervisors again on July 10.