County parks seek 10 year funding measure
Half-cent sales tax boost would fund infrastructure, new trails and clean water
One thing is perfectly clear about Measure J – the half-cent for 10 years sales tax boost on the November ballot – you will know exactly where the money will be spent. Because this is a special tax for a specific use, as opposed to a general tax, the measure will require a two-thirds majority to pass (as opposed to the 50 percent plus one needed to pass a general fund tax), a stiff hurdle. But Caryl Hart of Sonoma County Regional Parks is anything but discouraged over that stark fact of life.
“There is so much support for this measure,” Hart said in a recent interview with the Kenwood Press, “People we talk to from Roseland to Gualala and all over the north county see the need to take care of our parks.”
And the measure has been endorsed by a broad spectrum of residents.
“All the papers have endorsed it enthusiastically, and so have farm groups, supervisors, Congressmen – everybody from every walk of life.”
Hart has taken a leave of absence from her day job as head of the Sonoma County Regional Parks Department to manage the “Yes on Measure J” campaign. She sees the funding as absolutely necessary for the county to secure the future of one of its most valuable and productive assets, its parks.
County residents have overwhelmingly endorsed a sales tax supporting the Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, not once, but twice, with the second round receiving an unprecedented 76 percent approval. Ironically, since state parks can no longer accept new properties because of budget constraints, county parks have accepted lands bought with Open Space funds. And while the donations come with three year’s worth of support funds, eventually the county has to pay for operations, as well as building bathrooms, trails, picnic areas, campsites … the list goes on.
And while county parks have money to run the existing system, the funding isn’t there to handle the new properties coming in, Hart said.
“We stepped up, with no increase in budget,” Hart noted, “and our General Fund funding has decreased. To say parks are well funded is a fallacy.”
But that is exactly what the measure’s main detractors are saying about the measure.
Dan Drummond, executive director of the Sonoma County Taxpayers’ Association, wrote the voter pamphlet argument against the tax, saying that there are enough funds for parks already and that if more money is needed, the supervisors can lift the existing 10 percent cap on spending Open Space taxes for park purposes. However, that would require the Supervisors to rewrite the tax measure the next time it comes up for a vote.
The taxpayer association’s main argument is that the county should fix its pension crisis first. The money saved would be enough to fund parks, libraries and any other activities that need more money.
Craig Harrison, a founder of SOSroads, a group that advocates for immediate funding to bring the county’s notoriously bad roads up to par, said, “We are concerned that the supervisors need to set priorities and that the roads are a higher priority than virtually anything else. We are concerned that the parks tax would undermine the ability in the future to raise revenue for the roads. Voters are only going to approve so many taxes.”
Hart said that Sonoma County parks has been one of the most innovative in the country in seeking out new revenue sources and working with the private sector to do it.
“We support ourselves today,” Hart said, “through marketing efforts. We are the leader in the country. We are the first public park agency to use an entrepreneurial model where memberships are for sale everywhere. People used to have to write to the parks office. Now they can buy them at Whole Foods, REI, Oliver’s, and online. Passes include a night of free camping. There’s a new program for low-income residents with a five dollar access to parks for a year. We are really trying to expand our reach to get people who can’t afford it to have access to parks.”
The tax would only apply to transactions in the unincorporated areas of the county. The county auditor estimates that the half-cent increase will generate approximately $9.5 million every year. At current levels, this could generate approximately $95 million over the 10 years it will be in place.
The highly detailed spending plan is broken up into five categories:
Category 1: Expand and add new trails, parks and preserves $23,750,000 – 25 percent
Category 2: Improve existing biking, hiking and equestrian trails, parks and recreational facilities $19,000,000 – 20 percent
Category 3: Water quality, fisheries, wildlife habitat and natural areas stewardship and preservation $14,250,000 – 15 percent
Category 4: Environmental education, recreation and community programs $9,500,000 – 10 percent
Category 5: Park safety, access and recreational facilities improvements $28,500,000 – 30 percent
A list of local projects included in the measure’s plans are in the table below. A complete list can be found at www.yesforsonomacountyparks.org. Look to your voter handbook, arriving in a week or so, for details about the complex 2016 ballot.