Road, library taxes headed to ballot?

It’s almost a certainty that county voters will find two new tax measures on the November ballot.

One will improve the county’s aging road system and the other will help the county’s library system.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved a preliminary reading for both measures at Tuesday’s meeting and will vote for final approval on Aug. 5.

The proposed road tax would be a general tax for one-quarter of a cent and would only require a majority vote, while the proposed library tax would be a specialized one-eighth-cent tax that would require a two-thirds majority to pass.

The road tax would raise an estimated $20 million a year. But the county would share the proceeds with cities the way it shares Proposition M money, with the cities receiving 56 percent of the funding. That would leave the county with about $8.7 million a year for its $40 million a year road package.

To reach the $40 million a year road investment, in addition to the $8.7 million the tax would raise, the county would use $5.4 million in general fund revenues, $12 million in state gas tax funds and $2 million from other sources for road maintenance; $8 million in general fund money, $2.2 million in franchise fees and $1.8 million in federal funding for pavement preservation.

The county will also contract with the Sonoma County Transportation Agency to be the implementing agency the way it does for Proposition M funds.

“The supervisors went with the general tax instead of the specialized tax because of its lower threshold to pass,” said 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin. “We wanted to make it as easy as possible to be approved. We know there will be some voter resistance.”

Gorin said the supervisors also talked about the number of tax issues that will be on the ballot in various parts of the county. Some cities, notably Petaluma and Santa Rosa, are not happy that the county will have the measure on the ballot. Petaluma will have its own road tax measure on the ballot.

“The supervisors were a bit nervous about the sheer number of revenue issues on the ballot,” Gorin said. “But our roads are in such deplorable shape that we can’t wait for a convenient time. We want to make sure our road base doesn’t decay any further.”

Gorin said transit advocates want the supervisors to devote 10 percent of the new funding into transit. But the supervisors resisted.

“Supervisor Carrillo was nervous about putting the measure on the ballot because of voter resistance,” Gorin said. “But half the roads in the county are in his district – and are in terrible shape.”

On June 17, the board adopted the Long-Term Roads Plan recommended by an ad hoc committee, which sets a 10-year goal of improving more than 50 percent of the roads maintained by Sonoma County, and continuing to address the remaining roads in the following years.

To reach this goal, the county will need to repair approximately 700 miles of road in the coming 10 years, which is in addition to the approximately 150 miles of road currently completed or scheduled for repair work. Funding this plan requires increasing the county’s current investment in its road network to $40 million annually, primarily from increasing pavement preservation funding to an average of $20 million a year.

Gorin said the supervisors talked about putting the first $1 million into the worst roads.

As far as choosing the roads and putting a priority on them, Gorin said the Public Works and Transportation Department would work with each supervisor.

“I would have liked to have seen a 10-year plan with specific roads in specific years,” she said. “But I think it may go year-to-year.”

The supervisors also approved a proposed ballot measure for the beleaguered county library system. The one-eighth-cent tax would raise an estimated $8 million to $10 million a year. But because it’s a dedicated tax, it will take a two-thirds majority to pass.

Currently, the library system is financed through property taxes, and has a budget of about $15 million a year. But when property values fell, the property taxes leveled off and have been flat for a number of years.

“I’m pleased that the library tax passed unanimously,” Gorin said. “We realize how important the libraries are to our communities.”

If both the road tax and the library tax pass, the county will have to get legislation passed in Sacramento because the county would be over the state threshold on taxes. The state allows counties to add up to 2 percent on top of the state sales tax, but if both measures passed, the county would be an eighth-cent over the limit.

Gorin said it would take a special bill in Sacramento, but other counties have been successful in raising their tax rates.

There’s a bill to raise Contra Costa’s limit and Gorin thinks Sonoma could piggy-back on that bill.

Both measures are due for a final vote Tuesday, just in time to make the deadline for the November ballot.