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News: 08/01/2016

‘Tourist’ tax increase, funding for Regional Parks sought

Tax hikes slated for November ballot specifically affect unincorporated Sonoma County

At its July 19 meeting, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to add two tax hikes to the Nov. 8 ballot.

One is a half-cent sales tax boost designed to raise $9.5 million per year for Sonoma County Regional Parks over the next 10 years. The tax would only apply to sales made in the unincorporated parts of Sonoma County, the bulk of which consist of winery, gas station, construction and restaurant sales.

“Parks are part of our health and our daily lives and also the backbone of our recreation economy. Furthermore, parks in Sonoma County protect our critical natural resources, with all the values and benefits they bestow,” said Caryl Hart, director of Regional Parks. “But without proper funding, as we have seen with the California State Parks system, much of this is at risk.”

Over the past decade, Regional Parks’ property has increased 2,000 acres to a total of 56 regional parks comprised of 12,000 acres, which receive five million visitors annually, but its funding from the County’s general fund has remained relatively flat.

Thirty percent of the funds raised by the proposed half-cent sales tax increase would be used to address deferred maintenance in the parks, which Hart said is growing by approximately $2 million per year. The rest would be dedicated to developing new trails and increasing public access (25 percent); improving existing park facilities, like bathrooms (20 percent); expanding community education programs (10 percent); and addressing natural resource and watershed management (15 percent).

As a special tax, the measure requires two-thirds approval to pass and funds would be allocated specifically to Regional Parks.

Regional Park staff has already developed a list of priority projects if the tax increase passes. In Kenwood Plaza, money could be used to replace the playground, picnic tables and turf irrigation system. At Hood Mountain Regional Park, the campground restroom holding tank needs replacement and repairs are needed in the lower parking lot. They’d also like to expand backcountry ranger services and drill a small well for public drinking water. At Sonoma Valley Regional Park, funds would be used to replace fencing and renovate the picnic area and repair the dog park gazebo, among other things.

A portion of the funds would also be earmarked for constructing more bike paths in Sonoma County, including the proposed 13-mile Sonoma Valley Trail, creating more public river access, and developing trails on newly acquired properties like the Calabazas Creek Regional Park and Open Space Preserve off of Nuns Canyon Road, two new properties near Hood Mountain Regional Park, and North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park, among others.

Public comments included support for the measure, but also concerns that the tax seemed an undue burden to residents in the unincorporated areas. “It’s a tax on business done in the unincorporated areas that serve residents, so that’s residents paying,” said Sonoma Valley resident Gina Cuclis.

Comments from the supervisors were also mixed. Supervisor David Rabbitt expressed deep skepticism about polls indicating widespread support for the measure, referencing the polls done for Measure A, a countywide sales tax increase to generate money for road repairs, which seemed like a slam dunk until voters overwhelmingly rejected it at the ballot box last June.

First District Supervisor Susan Gorin said a countywide sales tax gets very complicated when both the cities and counties are involved. Both Gorin and Supervisor Shirlee Zane noted that sales tax in the unincorporated parts of Sonoma County is currently lower than in the cities. “We have a number of county services and markets and small businesses located in the county and I’m concerned that if we have a tax on the unincorporated area only that it puts an onus on them. But there are many in the city that have to pay city sales tax,” said Gorin.

In Sonoma County, the sales tax in the unincorporated area is currently 8.25%, while the rate in incorporated areas varies from 8.25% to 9.25%. If the proposed increase is approved, the sales tax rate in the unincorporated area would be equal to that in Healdsburg, Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa, and Sonoma, and would be lower than that in Sebastopol and Cotati.

Despite the misgivings, Gorin acknowledged that Regional Parks needs a dedicated funding source. She mentioned the master plans moving forward for Maxwell and Larson parks and deferred maintenance stacking up in the seven regional parks in Sonoma Valley. “We have needs in the unincorporated areas. Our residents deserve so much better.”

The second proposal approved by the Board would raise the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) rate from nine percent to 12 percent. The so-called “hotel tax” or “bed tax” is currently levied on all guests staying at the 2,121 hotels, bed and breakfasts, campgrounds, vacation rentals and the like in unincorporated areas of Sonoma County. County staff anticipates the tax increase would generate an additional $4.8 million annually with 25 percent ($1.2 million) of that to go into the county’s general fund. As general fund dollars, TOT revenue would have to be made available for any government purpose, but all the supervisors in turn stressed their commitment to dedicate increased revenue to things that offset the impacts of tourism in Sonoma County, like roads infrastructure, fire and emergency services, and affordable workforce housing.

“It’s effectively a bed tax to the tourists and if you can make the argument that there is a direct nexus with public safety, workforce housing, and to mitigate the impacts and effects of tourism – which I think are only going to grow in the county – I think we have to make the argument that we have to respond to the impacts that come from that,” said Supervisor Efren Carrillo.

The remaining 75 percent ($3.6 million) would be committed to the county’s advertising program that encourages tourism and economic development in the county.

“I do think we need to have a conversation – later – about the percentage going to advertising and the percentage going to the general fund to address positively the impacts of our enormous amount of visitors,” said Gorin, echoing Zane’s concerns. Nevertheless, Gorin was supportive of putting the measure on the ballot.

“It is time for Sonoma County to boost their TOT rate and still be comparable with the other counties and cities that we compete with.”

By comparison, the only city in Sonoma County that has a nine percent hotel tax rate is Santa Rosa. All other cities have a hotel tax of 12 percent or higher. When comparing nearby counties, only Lake County matches Sonoma County’s current TOT tax rate.

As a general tax, it would require a majority vote to approve it.

The proposed TOT tax increase will appear on all Sonoma County ballots in November, while the sales tax measure for Regional Parks will appear only on ballots of voters who live in unincorporated Sonoma County.

Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.

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