March 2021 Ballot Measures – West County Parcel Taxes and TOT

There are two measures up before voters on March 2 and both are limited to voters in the West Sonoma County Unified High School District (Sebastopol, Forestville) and the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District.

Measure A – West Sonoma County Unified High School District Parcel Tax.  This is a three year levy of $48 per parcel intended to raise $1,150,000 annually to pay primarily for teacher salaries.  Two-thirds (2/3) voter approval required.  This measure comes on the heels of last years’ renewal by voters of an existing $79 parcel tax assessment and just two years after voters approved a $93 million bond measure (SoCoTax opposed the bond measure; we took no position on the parcel tax renewal). 

Like most Sonoma County School Districts, WSCUHSD continues to experience declining enrollment figures.  Between the fires, floods, pandemic and high cost of housing, fewer and fewer young families choose to live here and school enrollments have suffered as a result.  All projections indicate this trend will continue for the foreseeable future. 

WSCUHSD’s two primary campuses are Analy High School in Sebastopol and El Molino High School in Forestville.  The District also operates Laguna High School, a continuation school housed on the Analy campus.  The two main campuses were built to accommodate an enrollment of over 2,500 students.  Current enrollment at Analy and El Molino has dropped from 2,100 in 2011 to 1,700 today and is projected to drop to about 1,400 in the next few years.  As a result, the district finds itself with facilities well in excess of its needs.  While declining enrollment figures translate to reduced state funding, the costs of maintaining its facilities continues to rise. 

A proposal put forth by the district’s board of trustees to consider consolidating the Analy and El Molino facilities generated a torrent of opposition from supporters of El Molino who feared that their smaller of the two schools would be closed.  Further consolidation discussions ceased.  Given the existing parcel tax and bond measures, coupled with the trustees’ refusal to further consider consolidation or other cost cutting measures, SoCoTax sees no reason give the district any more tax money.  We encourage the WSCUHSD board of trustees to do their duty and make the tough budget cutting decisions they were elected to make.  We recommend a NO vote on Measure A.

Measure B – West Sonoma County Transit Occupancy Tax.  This is a 4% increase to the existing transit occupancy tax (sometimes known as the hotel bed tax, or the TOT) intended to raise $2.7 million annually without expiration.  It applies to hotel, B&B and short term rentals within the areas comprised of the West Sonoma County Unified High School District and the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District.  One-half of the tax proceeds are earmarked to support paramedic and rescue services with the remaining half going to West Sonoma County Unified High School District. 

So, what’s really going on here?  The tax had been in the planning stages for some time and was originally intended to ensure that tourists visiting the area paid a portion of the cost of emergency medical and rescue services provided to them by the Bodega Bay FPD.  Had the measure made it to the ballot in that form, SoCoTax likely would not have opposed it.  But that’s not what happened.             A few weeks before the filing deadline for ballot measures, the WSCUHSD board of trustees proposed the Analy-El Molino consolidation discussed above re Measure A.  Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who lives in Forestville and represents the West County area, was besieged by El Molino supporters alarmed that El Molino would be on the short end of the consolidation stick.  Hopkins pushed through some late changes to the measure and named WSCUHSD a co-beneficiary along with the Bodega Bay FPD.  Hopkins actions did not gain the unanimous support of her colleagues and Supervisor David Rabbit voted against the last minute changes questioning whether the board of supervisors should insert itself into school district matters.  Indeed, the move marks the first time the Board of Supervisors has meddled in the affairs of a school district (independent bodies with their own elected boards of trustees) and invites every other school district in the county to seek financial help from the county.  With no guidelines in place to govern the circumstances under which the Board of Supervisors will or will not intervene in the affairs of other school districts, and with great haste to meet the ballot measure filing deadline, we see this measure as ill-considered and bad public policy.  For these reasons, as well as the reasons expressed above in our discussion re Measure A, SoCoTax recommends a No vote on Measure B.

November 2020 Ballot Measures

There are twelve Sonoma County tax measures up for vote in November.  How many of these tax measures you will be asked to decide depends of course on where you live as many of these taxes are sponsored by cities or special districts spread across Sonoma County.  In the paragraphs following we provide you with our synopsis of these tax measures and our recommendations to assist you make an informed vote.

            Measure O – County of Sonoma, Mental Health and Homeless Services Sales Tax.  This is a new 10-year ¼ cent sales tax intended to raise $25 million annually to augment the county’s mental health and homeless services.  This tax is similar to past sales taxes for roads, libraries, parks, and fire services.  The board of supervisors continues to cherry pick high profile services in its ongoing efforts to extract additional tax dollars from you while at the same time refusing to address skyrocketing pension obligations that take money away from these basic government services.  Until the county makes meaningful efforts to address its pension liabilities, SoCoTax recommends a NO vote on Measure O.

            Measure DD – Sonoma County Transportation Authority, Go Sonoma Act.  This tax is billed by proponents as a “renewal” of Measure M, the ¼ cent 20-year sales tax originally approved by voters back in 2004.  Measure M provided funding for Highway 101 widening and expires in 2024.  Measure DD is really a new tax that is only similar to Measure M in that it shares the same ¼ cent tax rate.  Measure DD’s 20-year term begins in 2024 upon Measure M’s expiration.  Measure DD tax proceeds are allocated 65% to road repairs and traffic improvement; 35% to buses and bicycle paths.  We at SoCoTax have mixed feelings about Measure DD.  On one hand, we find disingenuous the argument that Measure DD is simply an extension of an existing tax.  It isn’t.  Measure DD is a new tax with new objectives and a new term.   On the other hand, we have no dispute with SCTA’s use of Measure M funds.  It has largely achieved what was promised and has been successful in leveraging local dollars with grants from state and federal sources.  Concern has been expressed by some in our organization that too much of the money is allocated to buses and bike paths.  Others find the allocation appropriate.  We’ll let you decide for yourself on that one.  SoCoTax is taking no position on Measure DD.

            Measure Q – City of Santa Rosa, Sales Tax Extensions.  There is a lot not to like here.  This measure seeks to consolidate two previously approved ¼ cent sales taxes, one specifically approved to help Santa Rosa weather the financial recession of the past decade while the second was approved specifically to help offset losses caused by the 2017 wildfires.  The recession is largely behind us and Santa Rosa just received $95 million from PG&E to cover wildfire losses.  Rather than letting these two taxes expire as originally promised, Santa Rosa seeks to combine and continue the two into a single ½ cent tax for general operational expenses.  SoCoTax finds reprehensible the practice of exploiting a crisis or disaster to justify new “temporary” taxes only to turn around and continue them indefinitely under the guise of needed operational funding.  SoCoTax believes promises made should be kept.  We recommend NO on Measure Q.

            Measure U – City of Petaluma, Sales Tax.  This is a new sales tax at a whopping 1% rate that never expires, a so-called “forever tax” if you like.  As with the county and other cities, Petaluma has refused to meaningfully address its pension problems, which consume greater and greater portions of its general fund every year.  While that alone is sufficient basis to reject this tax, more troubling is the permanent nature of the tax.  As discussed in greater detail below regarding Measures R, S, T and V, forever taxes mean voters are denied the opportunity to periodically review the council’s use of the money and decide for themselves whether renewal is justified or not.  Forever taxes create a lack of accountability and disincentive to transparency.  SoCoTax recommends NO on Measure U.

            Measures R (Cloverdale), S (Cotati), T (Healdsburg) and V (Sonoma).  We are lumping these four measures together because they are all substantially the same.  All four are renewals of existing taxes, but with an insidious twist – they never expire.  As touched on above regarding Petaluma’s Measure U, forever taxes deprive voters of the opportunity to periodically review their council’s performance.  Forever taxes are an underhanded attempt by city councils to escape future scrutiny.  Forever taxes undermine both accountability and transparency.  SoCoTax recommends NO on Measures R, S, T and V.  (Note: the Cloverdale measure is a utility users tax while the other three are sales taxes.)

Measures L (Shoreline Unified School District), M (Fort Ross School District), N (Sebastopol Union School District) and AA (Timber Cove Fire Protection District).  These four measures are renewals of existing parcel taxes.  Unlike the measures discussed above, these four renewals have fixed expirations.  Shoreline, Fort Ross and Sebastopol school districts are eight years each; Timber Cove is 15 years.  Beyond that, we don’t have enough information about these districts or their administration to offer a recommendation.  SoCoTax is taking no position on these measures.

Sonoma County Controller to Address SoCoTax – March 15

Sonoma County Auditor-Controller-Treasurer-Tax Collector Eric Roeser is this month’s featured speaker.  Mr. Roeser will address the financial challenges faced by the county in the aftermath of the Tubbs fire last October.  In addition to the loss of human life, nearly 6,000 structures were destroyed decimating the county’s property tax base in the process.  All that on top of the millions of dollars in unbudgeted expenses for fighting the fires, evacuating residents and dealing with the resulting cleanup and rebuilding process.  This will be a fascinating and informative discussion.  Make your plans to attend.  Click here for more info.

Meetings Moved to Flamingo Hotel

Come join us at our new venue, the Flamingo Hotel at Fourth and Farmers Lanes, Santa Rosa.  Sadly, our long-time meeting venue, the Fountaingrove Inn, was destroyed in the October fires that ravaged much of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County.  We are pleased, however, that the Flamingo Hotel could accommodate us at our regular meeting dates every third Thursday of the month.  We look forward to seeing you there.

District Attorney Jill Ravitch to Speak on April 20

Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch will visit SoCoTax on April 20 to discuss the district attorney’s office and related matters.  Meeting open to the public.

Dan Walters to Speak at Annual Meeting on February 16

Sign up for now for the annual membership meeting on February 16.  SoCoTax is pleased to have Sacramento Bee political columnist Dan Walter join us as our keynote speaker.  Mr. Walters always fills the room so get your registration in early.  To download the info, click here.