The Kenwood Press
News: 06/15/2015

Voters give Measure A an “F”

Alec Peters

Measure A, 1/4-cent sales tax that county officials maintained would go to fix a crumbling 1,383-mile county road system, got a big thumbs down from county voters on election day, June 2.

In the end, the measure crashed and burned due in part to a perfect storm of voter distrust over whether the tax would be spent as promised, continuing general anti-tax sentiment in the county, confusion and suspicion of the wording of the measure itself, and a low voter turnout in an off-year election that favored those motivated to vote no.

The final tally wasn’t pretty. The “No” votes were 62.7 percent, and “Yes” 37 percent. Voter turnout was 31.2 percent of registered voters.

Measure A lost decisively despite close to $180,000 spent by the Vote Yes on Measure A committee. Endorsements for the measure came from a variety of organizations across the political spectrum, ranging from Sonoma County Conservation Action and North Bay Labor Council on one end, to the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce and Sonoma County Alliance on the other.

There was no organized opposition to Measure A, though taxpayer groups in the county came out strongly against the initiative, arguing in part that because it was a general tax, as opposed to one specifically for roads, the measure was based on “empty promises.”

Measure A would have raised an estimated $20 million a year over a fixed five-year term, funds which would have gone directly into the county’s General Fund, and later divvied up between the county and the nine incorporated cities. The measure would have mandated annual audits.

For a number of years, the county’s board of supervisors has been working to address the poor condition of county roads, caused by years of previous budgetary neglect, declining State and Federal gas-tax revenues, and other reductions of state and federal funding.

A long-term road plan developed by the county last year for maintenance and road improvements estimated that it would take up to $1 billion to bring the entire county road network up to snuff.

First District Supervisor Susan Gorin said there are $22.4 million of county funds earmarked for road improvements over the next two years. But that’s a far cry from the long-range plan’s estimation that $48 million is needed annually from all funding sources.

During the run-up to the election, letters to the editor flooded county newspapers, and seemed to indicate that voters weren’t opposed to spending money on roads, or perhaps even a road specific tax, which would have required a two-thirds majority for passage. But voters didn’t like how Measure A, which required just a simple majority, was developed, and were wary of the specific language in the measure that opponents said gave no assurances as to how the money was going to be spent.

Polling conducted last Fall for a potential roads initiative indicated that a specific tax requiring a two-thirds vote had little chance of succeeding. So county officials developed general tax language, but kept moving the election date, from November of last year, to March, and then to June. The final language of the measure stated that the 1/4-cent sales tax would go, “for general governmental purposes, such as public safety, local roads and pothole repair, senior student and veterans transit, and other essential services…” Despite a full-court press by county supervisors at many public meetings throughout the county pledging that Measure A’s monies would go to roads, the measure’s wording was vague enough to turn voters off.

Gorin, who attended 10 forums on the measure in her district, said that county officials’ arguments, “were obviously not compelling.”

Gorin said she recognized people’s concerns about a general tax initiative, but hoped that the fact there would be annual audits to hold the supervisors accountable would help allay fears.

Moving on from the defeat, Gorin said that roads would, “be our number one priority for the foreseeable future,” but that it will just take longer to tackle the daunting amount of road work that needs to be done. She said the board will continue to explore other sources of revenue to put towards roads.

As for going out for another tax measure, Gorin said it’s unlikely the current board will lead any charge to put something back on the ballot.

“It can’t be only from the top-down,” said Gorin. “It has to be a full community effort to move forward. It has to come from the community.”

Craig Harrison, co-founder of roads advocacy group SOSroads and a strong supporter of Measure A, said that while he appreciates the county’s recent efforts the last few years to address road issues, he’s concerned about the Board of Supervisors “losing focus” in the wake of Measure A’s defeat.

“In the end over time, keeping roads fixed is just not as sexy as some new program,” said Harrison.

Supervisors soon start budget hearings, where potential increases in road funding will be competing with possible new spending on areas such as free preschool, affordable housing programs, homeless services, and fire protection. In addition, supervisors will continue to tackle the huge issue of pension obligations.

Harrison said that SOSroads will continue to push for roads to be a budget priority.

“There are some good things happening, but there are so many miles of roads to deal with,” said Harrison.