Supervisors back parks funding for November ballot
Sarah C. Phelps
Open Calabazas Creek in Nuns Canyon as a public regional park and preserve; renovate Maxwell Farms’ sports fields, bikeways, and tennis courts; and turn the port-a-potty at Sonoma Valley Regional Park into a real restroom.
These are just a few of the items on Sonoma County Regional Parks’ growing to-do list across its 56 parks countywide. Regional Parks has identified about $20 million in deferred maintenance needs, but has about $200,000 in annual funding to address them. The department receives its funding from the county’s general fund, and although property under its management has increased to over 11,000 acres in its 50-year history, funding has not kept pace.
“It’s going to be extremely challenging to achieve these goals without a dedicated funding source from the county,” said Sonoma County Regional Parks Director Bert Whitaker at the July 10 meeting of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. On the whole, supervisors agreed with that sentiment, and approved the regional parks’ request to place a new funding measure on the November 2018 ballot.
The measure calls for a 1/8-cent countywide sales tax increase, expected to raise $11.5 million annually over 10 years, to be divided among city and regional parks around the county.
A similar measure, Measure J, missed the two-thirds majority necessary for approval in 2016, by just 1,100 votes. Measure J, however, would have applied to transactions only in the unincorporated areas of the county. Whitaker said polls have indicated strong support for the new measure that would apply countywide and would set aside one-third of the revenue generated for the maintenance of city parks.
Of the expected $115 million total raised, $38 million would be divvied up among the nine cities, based on a percent of total population. The remaining $76 million would go to regional parks. Roughly a quarter of that money would be earmarked to address regional parks’ deferred maintenance and safety projects and to update restrooms and existing trails. Another 23 percent would be earmarked for improving access to parks through bike paths, river access points, and opening public access to open space. The remaining money would go towards improving natural resource management, which includes fuels management measures like open grazing.
“While modest, this increase is significant enough to stabilize our operation, invest in natural resources, and avoid fee increases while maintaining our current level of services,” said Sonoma County Regional Parks Deputy Director Melanie Parker.
A dedicated funding stream would also give the regional parks access to additional sources of money, including private grants and state Proposition 68 funds. Proposition 68, passed in June, provides $40 million in matching funds for counties whose voters have approved a dedicated revenue source for parks.
The cost of placing the measure on the November ballot depends on a number of factors, including whether or not there is more than one county measure, actual voter registration, and the number of pages of text needed in the voter pamphlet. Estimated costs are approximately $300,000.
Whitaker assured the supervisors that a citizen’s oversight working group would be put in place to communicate and prioritize plans with the board annually.
“We have a five-year plan already in place,” said Whitaker, referencing the Sonoma County Intergrated Parks Plan, whose draft was completed in 2015. “This gets us to a ‘phase one,’” he said.
“This is going to pass; I know it,” said First District Supervisor Susan Gorin.