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Sonoma County Regional Parks to propose 1/8 cent sales tax

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If at first you don’t succeed… Sonoma County Regional Parks are trying again, proposing a county-wide tax initiative that could raise an estimated $11.5 million annually for the next 10 years to meet deferred park maintenance and other needs.

In 2016, a similar measure to impose a half-cent sales tax on county residents outside of city jurisdictions narrowly lost, despite support from about 65 percent of those who voted in the November 2016 election. Measure J fell 1,100 votes short of winning the two-thirds majority necessary to pass.

Now Regional Parks officials are gearing up to pitch a more modest sales tax measure they hope to get on the November ballot. Instead of a half-cent tax on non-city residents, the new proposal calls for a smaller one-eighth cent tax on all county sales transactions. A draft proposal will be submitted to the Board of Supervisors tomorrow, June 13.

“Sonoma Valley generously supported Measure J last year to create a stable funding source for our Regional Parks, and we now have an opportunity to support this funding source for both Regional Parks and city parks,” said 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin.

“I’m confident that our Board will approve putting this on the ballot in November, and our cities will support this as well since there are critical needs for our city parks.”

To sweeten the deal for city residents, the new tax would divert one-third of its proceeds to municipal parks and recreation services, with the remaining two-thirds going to the county regional parks system.

The park system was founded in 1967 and has since grown to include 56 parks, including open spaces and marinas. Today, the department oversees more than 11,000 acres — twice the acreage of just 10 years ago, in large part due to conservation land acquisitions. The department also maintains 150 miles of trail.

But for the past half-century, there has been no dedicated funding source for the parks. Park managers say a stable funding stream is long overdue if the department hopes to keep up with deferred maintenance and meet growing demand — not to mention recovery from last year’s fires.

Appropriations from the county general fund, and money raised from parking fees and memberships, need to be supplanted if the park system is going to remain viable and healthy, say park officials. “We need to stabilize the park system and bring in the essential stabilizing funds that will allow us to tread water, because we’re not right now,” Deputy Parks Director Melanie Parker said.

More than $38 million over 10 years would be distributed among the nine cities, though whether based on population or sales tax collected has yet been determined.

From the $76.6 million accrued to county parks, about $33 million would be used to cover one-time investments like updated park infrastructure, development of bike paths, regional trails, park signage, trailheads and facilities in new parks and preserves.

The remaining $4.4 million a year would go toward operations, augmenting the existing operational budget by 24 percent, Parker said.

County supervisors are expected to receieve a briefing on the draft proposal Wednesday during a discussion on potential autumn ballot measures. A public hearing on the proposal is expected July 10, officials said.

Mary Callahan contributed to this report.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sononmanews.com.