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Sonoma County housing sales tax takes baby step

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Sonoma County supervisors on Wednesday abandoned plans to place a $300 million countywide affordable housing bond on the ballot this fall, instead grudgingly agreeing to consider pairing a smaller sales tax measure covering unincorporated areas with a smaller Santa Rosa-only housing bond expected to go before voters in November.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who for months pushed for a countywide measure, urged her colleagues to back the new plan after the broader bond ran into opposition from land-rich agricultural interests and efforts to create a compromise parcel tax proved convoluted.

While the $9 million the tax would raise annually makes it the least lucrative of the three measures the board considered, Hopkins touted it as a flexible option that was less regressive than a parcel tax.

Taxes requiring lower-income people to pay a higher percentage of their income than wealthier people are considered regressive. A parcel tax typically imposes a flat tax rate, regardless of parcel size, though the county had explored different rates for different types of land, such as improved versus unimproved parcels.

Supervisor Susan Gorin said she was skeptical about the switch and wondered aloud what had happened to the bond measure the board originally supported in April.

“Why have we suddenly shifted from a bond based on real estate values to a sales tax?” she asked. “I think sales taxes are the most regressive.”

Hopkins noted that the two-thirds majority required to pass a bond measure means “any opposition basically kills the thing.”

The Sonoma County Farm Bureau and the Sonoma County Alliance have opposed the countywide bond but are less concerned about a Santa Rosa-only measure.

Gorin argued countywide sales tax measures don’t have the best track record. She pointed to Measure A, the quarter-cent road bond that 63 percent of voters rejected in 2015.

“It failed pretty miserably with little opposition,” Gorin said.

She also noted there had been neither polling nor a clear plan for how the funds would be spent, calling the language she has seen so far “fuzzy.”

She voiced hopes that staff would analyze a smaller sales tax, such as a quarter-cent option, before the item returns on July 10.

Margaret Van Vliet, executive director of the Community Development Commission, said county staff would need to “spring into action fairly quickly” to meet the filing deadlines to get anything on the November ballot.

Supervisor David Rabbitt agreed to let staff do some more work on the idea but made it clear his opposition was deep. He said it didn’t make sense for rural areas in his district, like Penngrove and Valley Ford, to pay higher sales taxes to support new housing in cities — particularly Santa Rosa — that aren’t even in his district.

He said the bigger problem, one he understood intimately from 35 years as an architect, is cities continue to make it extremely difficult to build housing.

“It still comes back to getting the cities to build the housing they said they were going to build,” Rabbitt said.

Hopkins noted that a large percentage of the sales taxes would be paid for by tourists visiting Wine Country, which she said would only be fair because tourists exacerbate the housing crisis by buying second homes in the area and staying in properties used as vacation rentals.

But Rabbit was unconvinced.

“I don’t think it’s a wise move at this particular point in time,” he said.

Supervisor James Gore acknowledged the board was in an “imperfect place.” But it nevertheless unanimously agreed to form an ad hoc committee made up of Rabbitt and Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who supports such a measure, to see if something can be worked out.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.