The Kenwood Press
: 08/01/2020

Supervisors set to decide on early renewal for transportation tax

Decision may hinge on determined opposition

Jay Gamel

There are a lot of reasons to renew Sonoma County’s quarter cent transportation sales tax five years early and almost as many problems with doing it this year. The county’s five supervisors must decide before an Aug. 13 deadline to have it placed on the November ballot. Otherwise, it would likely not be put to a vote until 2022, the next regular election period.

Suzanne Smith, Executive Director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority Sonoma County Transportation Authority for the past 23 years, is well aware of the pitfalls of seeking a two-thirds majority for a tax hike in the middle of one of the toughest economic downturns in the past 100 years. It took four tries to get approval for the expiring tax – Measure M – back in 2004. At a cost estimate of about $700,000 to even get this measure on the November ballot, it’s not lightly undertaken.

Why try, then, five years before the existing tax sunsets in 2025? Money and leverage, Smith said.

“We have been able to leverage our tax money at about five to one to secure other funding,” she said. For every dollar of local taxes, the county has procured five dollars of other funding, which has mostly underwritten the widening Highway 101 over the past 15 years.

Raising local taxes for transportation is called “self help” in the language of state and federal financial planning, and is critical to getting high-cost projects built. More money is granted faster to jurisdictions that pony up part of their costs, over those that don’t.

With a stable local funding source, the SCTA has garnered highly competitive state and federal funds that would not have been possible without a local commitment that gets projects shovel-ready.

Measure M’s quarter-cent tax has averaged over $23 million a year for the past five years and has contributed to local road upkeep, street projects, local bus and rail transit and a slew of bicycle and pedestrian projects under a tightly watched expenditure plan.

A 2019 review of the remaining years of the tax concluded that strategic planning will become more difficult and that the SCTA may have to consider early renewal or even a new tax to provide for future transportation funding. Of the $188 million that may be taken in through 2025, nearly half will go debt servicing.

Considering the voters’ rejection of sales taxes to pay for fire fighting and the SMART rail funding in March, the SCTA retained local consultant Rob Muelrath to test the public’s tolerance for another tax. Muelrath Public Affairs has been sampling Sonoma County voters for many years; EMC Research, the Oakland firm he hired to ask about early renewal of the transportation tax, came up with very positive conclusions.

Local voters are very likely to support the renewal by up to 75 percent, a healthy margin for success, according to EMC Research’s interviews with 552 local voters. However, the report also cautioned that support could fall below that needed to pass a tax if any serious opposition was mounted.

By ‘serious’ opposition, EMC Research vice president James McClain said that encompasses a financed opposition media campaign, not just an opposition statement on the printed ballot.

The county Board of Supervisors is scheduled on Aug 4 to vote on putting the tax on the November ballot.

The North Bay Leadership Council membership voted to oppose the tax measure on July 28. The Council’s membership roster includes some of the largest employers in the county, with executives from business, non-profit and universities, as well as executives from the Press Democrat and the Business Journal.

“The NBLC will be part of an active campaign against all of the tax measures,” NBLC Executive Director Cynthia Murray said on July 29, including any county or city tax measures being put forward for November. “I expect that there will be a coalition of like-minded business groups formed and that will be the organization that collects contributions and does the active campaigning. NBLC does not contribute to any campaigns. There are two PACs that do make political contributions that are separate from NBLC and its members. No authorizations to make contributions from the NBLC PAC has been authorized to date.”