What does a local park have to offer to get some respect in Sonoma County?
Playgrounds, bikeways, walking paths, tennis courts, basketball hoops, fresh air, peace, solitude – the list goes on.
And, yet, when county voters in 2016 were faced with a half-cent sales tax on the ballot to raise $95 million over 10 years, their response? Meh.
To be fair, while this paper two years ago supported Measure J – as many community parks are in desperate need of funds for revitalization – it was not without its flaws.
The biggest was that its sales tax was county-only – meaning cities weren’t beholden to the half cent ding at the register. While that protected the county’s nine cities from having to worry about inching closer to the state’s imposed 10.25 percent sales tax ceiling, it unfairly burdened unincorporated areas with the levy. Which is probably why so many unincorporated county voters said “no thanks,” and the measure sunk by a 2.8-percent margin.
On the Nov. 6 ballot, County Parks is hoping the second time is more the charm.
Measure M is a smaller ask – one-eighth of a cent sales tax – but spread more equitably throughout the entire county.
Measure M, also known as “The Sonoma County Parks Improvement, Water Quality, and Fire Safety Measure,” would impose a one-eighth cent tax – or, 0.125 percent – on sales countywide for a 10-year period. Parks officials estimate that the measure would raise about $11.5 million a year.
Two thirds of the revenue would go toward County Parks, the other third to be divvied up among the county’s nine cities, with the slices of the pie sized by population – meaning 6th-largest Sonoma’s slice is a $1.19 million sliver over the 10 years. While it would be nicer if the proportions were based on actual sales tax revenue – a more equitable reflection of overall contribution, and one that would boost Sonoma’s standing – there’s simply no denying: $119,000 a year will buy a lot of gaga pits.
Sonoma County Regional Parks Director Bert Whitaker is quick to name check Ernie Smith, Larson and Maxwell parks in the Valley as high priorities if Measure M passes. Spending in the City of Sonoma would be at the behest of the City Council, but required to go toward parkland improvements – meaning Depot Park, the Montini Preserve, bike-and-pedestrian pathways and Plaza upkeep would all be possible beneficiaries.
And in the wake of last year’s fires, which scorched 2,600 acres of regional parklands, $9 million over the course of the decade would go toward reducing open space fire fuel.
Sonoma County is currently one of only three Bay Area counties to not have a sales tax to support its regional parks, according to Whitaker. Meanwhile, Measure M proponents say, the county’s regional parks has doubled in size in the last 10 years, during that time visitation has grown from 3.5 million visits annually to 5 million. In short, we’ve got a lot more people using a lot more parklands – but funding remains at 2008 levels.
The Sonoma County Taxpayers Association is the sole public opposition to Measure M. SCTA says its beef with clean toddler sandpits and splinter-free picnic tables isn’t personal – the tax watchdog says it won’t support any new taxes until the county sorts out its unfunded pension liability costs. But that’s a specious argument; not unlike making the whole class stay for detention because Jimmy was chewing gum.