Measure M: Sales tax seeks to fund public parks

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Sonoma Valley voters will be asked this fall to vote on a new one-eighth of a cent sales tax to fund city and county public parks.

Measure M, also known as “The Sonoma County Parks Improvement, Water Quality, and Fire Safety Measure,” will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot for voters throughout the county.

If approved by the requisite two-thirds vote, the measure would impose a one-eighth cent tax – or, 0.125 percent – on sales countywide for a 10-year period. Park officials estimate that the measure would raise a $11.5 million a year.

If this measure sounds familiar, that because a similarly worded sales tax proposal, Measure J, suffered a narrow loss at the polls in November 2016.

The difference this time is that the proposed sales tax is lower and countywide – 2016’s Measure J proposed a half-cent sales tax only in effect in the county’s unincorporated areas.

Measure M proponents say the initiative would mark the first dedicated funding source for the county’s 56 regional parks.

Burt Whitaker, director of Sonoma County Regional Parks, explained that, if Measure M passes, the revenue could also be leveraged to attract other sources of state and federal funds. Passing the tax measure this fall would make the county eligible for a cut of $40 million in one-time funding from Proposition 68, a $4.1 billion state bond measure approved by California voters last June, according to Whitaker.

Sonoma County’s regional park system includes 11,000 acres, 2,500 of which were damaged by the October 2017 wildfires. The system also includes 250 campsites, 150 miles of hiking trails, 36 sports fields, three marinas and the Spring Lake environmental education program.

Two-thirds, or about $7.7 million a year, of the new sales tax revenue would be directed to county regional parks, and one-third, or about $3.8 million, would be divided among nine city parks and recreational programs. The percentage of the revenue split among the cities would depend upon population. The City of Sonoma would receive approximately $118,000 annually for the next 10 years from Measure M.

Sonoma Valley’s portion of the funds wiould be earmarked for a variety of projects including replacing aging playgrounds, picnic areas, and/or athletic field renovations at Larson, Arnold Field, Maxwell Farm and Ernie Smith parks; developing new sections of bike trails from Kenwood to Santa Rosa and from Sonoma to Schellville. Funds to Sonoma would go to the city’s general fund and be dispersed for park purposes, with specifics determined by city officials.

The Sonoma County Taxpayers Association is opposed to the Measure M.

“We don’t disagree that the Parks need money. They do,” said Dan Drummond, the association’s executive director. “Our issue as at a macro level. The county government is diverting money that should be spent on our parks, fire departments and road to pay for public employee pensions. Until the Board of Supervisors addresses skyrocketing pension, voters will continue to be asked to approve more and more tax increases. Until the supervisors get serious about pension reform, we can’t support giving them any more money.”

Another concern over the measure is that it inches county cities an eighth-cent closer to the state-mandated sales-tax ceiling. Statewide, sales tax is limited by law to 7.25 percent and counties or cities can add a maximum of 2 percent additional taxes for local purposes for a total allowable sales tax of 9.25 percent. The City of Cotati, for instance, would hit that ceiling if Measure M passes.

First District Supervisor Susan Gorin, however, is a passionate proponent of the “Parks for All” ballot initiative.

“Measure M is a collaboration between our County and its cities to raise a small amount of revenue to collectively fund critical deferred maintenance in our parks, build new trails and fully accessible restrooms and plan programs to engage our community,” she said. “Two years ago, Measure J failed by just a few votes, and so we need everyone’s support this November.”

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