Measure M – pay more to play more
Regional Parks tax measure lands on the ballot, along with several others
Sarah C. Phelps
We’re getting there, but without additional funding, we’re not getting there very fast. That was how First District Supervisor Susan Gorin summed up progress on many Sonoma County Regional Parks projects underway during a town hall meeting she hosted in Boyes Hot Springs on Sept. 19. It was the general message of the evening, attended by a handful of valley residents; most of them pickle ball players and cyclists, who had gripes about the state of the local pickle ball courts and roads in the area.
There are plans for four brand new pickle ball courts at Maxwell Farms Regional Park, complete with lighting, said Steve Ehret, project manager for Sonoma County Regional Parks. With approval by the Board of Supervisors anticipated this winter, Regional Parks plans to break ground on construction next summer. “The caveat –” Ehret said, “is if we have funding.”
Sonoma County Regional Parks, celebrating its 51st anniversary this year, has seen tremendous growth both in the acreage under its management and visitor usage, and yet, has never had a dedicated funding source for operations.
Now at 11,071 acres, the park system saw 5.4 million visits last year, with a camping occupancy mirroring that of the county’s hotel occupancy at 80 percent. There is an estimated $20 million in deferred maintenance.
Regional Parks is asking the public to vote on a one-eight-cent sales tax increase this November. Measure M is expected to raise $11.5 million annually over 10 years, to be divided among city and regional parks.
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.
Less than one-third of Regional Parks’ revenue comes from taxpayers. It receives funding from the County’s General Fund (which makes up about 18 percent of its roughly $1.6 million budget), from impact fees (imposed on construction in the unincorporated areas of the county), a percentage of the money collected by the Transient Occupancy Tax (levied on all overnight stays in the county), and from the numerous grants it seeks annually.
Regional Parks also increasingly depends on fees for parking, membership, camping, and other public services. But fee increases can impact those who can least afford them.
“We think a $7 parking fee is about as high as we can go,” said Bert Whitaker, Executive Director of Regional Parks. “$35 a night for camping, that’s getting up there.”
Of the expected $115 million total that would be raised by Measure M, $38 million would be divvied up among the nine cities, based on per capita 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 fire fuels management measures like open grazing. More than 2,500 acres of parkland were impacted by last year’s wildfires.
“Current funding simply hasn’t kept pace with our growth or with the public’s desire for recreational services. If Measure M isn’t approved, we will be forced to contemplate increasing fees for parking, camping, and field trips; postponing park openings; or even reducing the services we currently provide,” said Whitaker.
Taxpayer association blames pension costs
“We have no objections with parks, our objection is with the board of supervisors’ unwillingness to deal with the pension problem,” said Dan Drummond, executive director of the Sonoma County Taxpayers’ Association, which wrote a ballot statement opposing the sales tax increase.
Drummond said Measure M is just another in a “never ending parade of sales tax measures” over the last few years – to help boost fire services, roads, libraries, among others. “We don’t have an objection to government services. We like nice roads to drive on and nice parks to take our families to, but all these vital government services are being held hostage, so to speak, to the public employee pension problem,” said Drummond.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, too, is aware of that employee pension problem. In 2011, the Board of Supervisors convened an Independent Citizens Advisory Committee on Pension Matters in an effort to address the growing cost impact of employee pensions. Over the preceding ten years, annual pension costs had grown from $19 million to over $97 million, and the total unfunded pension obligations increased by 841 percent. The Independent Citizens Advisory Committee on Pension Matters published a not-overly-optimistic final report in July 2016.
“Due to the legal obligation to fund pension promises, resources are diverted from ongoing County services, such as road maintenance and public safety, to pay for annual required pension contributions. We calculate that if the County had maintained pension costs at a more sustainable level, $269 million in resources would have been available to fund critical public services over the past 10 years,” the report stated.
“I know the county has limited resources,” said Drummond. But he hopes conversations like this one can help put pressure on legislators.
At least one person at the parks town hall meeting voiced her concern about another tax increase, saying friends have had to move elsewhere because it’s so expensive to live in Sonoma County.
Crowded November ballot
There are several other local tax measures on the November ballot – parcel taxes for those in the boundaries of the Glen Ellen Fire and Valley of the Moon Fire Protection districts (Measure T and Measure Y), a one-quarter-cent sales tax increase for Santa Rosa (and Oakmont) voters (Measure O), and an increase of the Transient Occupancy Tax for the City of Sonoma by two percent in 2019 and an additional one percent by 2024 (Measure S). At the town hall meeting, Gorin said in 2020 the county will most likely ask voters to renew the one-quarter-cent sales tax increase they approved in 2004 (also called Measure M), which has gone towards major road projects like widening Highway 101.
Whitaker said he’s heard people praise Regional Parks’ Measure M this time around because it is a modest tax increase at just one-eighth-cent, adding just three cents to a $25 purchase.
Regional Parks manages 179 buildings, 54 bridges, 56 sports fields and 289 drinking faucets in its 56 parks around the county.
If Measure M is approved, the Board of Supervisors will establish a citizens’ oversight committee to provide transparency and ensure fiscal accountability.