Grand plan for regional parks hinges on bridging funding gap
The effort to get a new funding measure on the ballot to support Sonoma County Regional Parks is already underway.
Regional Parks staff took the occasion of a celebratory event unveiling Sonoma County Regional Parks’ strategic plan for the future of county parks, known as the Sonoma County Integrated Parks Plan (SCIPP), to remind a room full of parks members and supporters that its vision will never be fully realized without a dedicated funding source.
Although Regional Parks is celebrating its 50th birthday this year, it has never had a committed stream of revenue from the county budget. That goal was nearly hit this past June before Measure J was narrowly defeated. Although it received 65.1 percent of the votes, as a special tax, the measure required two-thirds (66.7 percent) approval to pass. The tax dedicated funds raised – an estimated $9.5 million over 10 years – directly to Regional Parks.
Over the past decade, Regional Parks’ property has increased by 2,000 acres, to a total of 56 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. On top of that, deferred maintenance is growing by approximately $2 million per year. While polling for Measure J revealed widespread support for parks, not enough of that support materialized at the ballot box.
This is in stark contrast to county residents’ endorsement of dedicated funding for the Sonoma County Agriculture Preservation and Open Space District (the District), not once, but twice. Most recently, in 2006, with 76 percent of the vote, Sonoma County residents approved Measure F to extend the quarter-cent sales tax through 2031. However, the District’s mission is not the same as Regional Parks’ and its lands are not usually open for public access. That only happens after the District transfers a property to county Regional Parks or California State Parks. Since state parks may no longer accept new properties because of budget constraints, Regional Parks has accepted more and more lands bought with District funds. And while the transfers come with up to 10 percent of District funding for the initial opening and operation of facilities on those properties, that’s where the money ends. Sonoma County Regional Parks Director Bert Whitaker said the parks department has been creative in stretching those dollars as far as they can, but “the reality we see using our facilities is that it’s not enough.”
This budget shortfall leaves the parks department torn between managing existing parks buried under a backlog of deferred maintenance and aging infrastructure, and addressing the public’s growing appetite for the development of new parks and new trails.
“The conversation needs to change from what could we do to expand and sustain our parks to what are we going to do,” said Whitaker.
Trying to harness the enthusiasm of the audience at the Sept. 21 Parks Summit, officials presented the integrated parks plan as a shared vision to invest in.
“This plan [SCIPP] envisions a future with improved connection between parks, where you can safely bike almost anywhere in the county on a designated trail or spend days hiking hut to hut through the parks,” said Whitaker.
In Sonoma Valley, goals include completing the transfer of Calabazas Creek Preserve in Glen Ellen from the District to Regional Parks; developing a trail between Calabazas and Sugarloaf, and from Trione-Annadel State Park to Sonoma Mountain Regional Park; developing a Class I bicycle and multi-use trail from Agua Caliente to Santa Rosa at Melita Road (aka the Sonoma Valley Trail); renovating Shaw Park, including improving the athletic field and irrigation system, and installing a permanent restroom; and developing the existing public access trail easement from the Sonoma Country Inn property to Hood Mountain Regional Park, including opening the 65-acre park dedication.
But without more money, this is just daydreaming. To that end, Regional Parks plans to return to the Board of Supervisors with a new tax measure, possibly for the June 2018 ballot. It’s currently applying for a grant to fund a voter survey, and rallying volunteers to help convince the community – and city and county leaders – that parks are a priority. Preliminary interviews with city officials have shown that everyone, of course, loves parks, but when it comes to funding, city leaders have competing priorities, like housing, roads and traffic, and homelessness.
Input from city officials might be very important this time around if Regional Parks decides to pursue a countywide sales tax measure in contrast to one only applying to transactions in the unincorporated areas of county, as Measure J tried to do. As of January, state sales tax is 7.25 percent and state law puts a cap on sales tax at 9.25 percent, cities – like Cotati, with a sales tax of 9.125 percent – will be mindful that a countywide sales tax doesn’t cut into their own revenue possibilities.
You can view the draft SCIPP at sonomacounty.ca.gov/Parks/Planning/Sonoma-County-Integrated-Parks-Plan.
Editor's note: This story was changed to reflect the current California state sales tax rate (7.25 percent), sales tax cap (9.25 percent) and Cotati's current sales tax rate (9.125 percent).
Sarah Phelps is an editor and staff writer.