Sonoma County supervisors kick off political fight over lodging tax to support firefighters, schools

In the face of deep opposition from lodging operators, but with support from school advocates and firefighting officials, Sonoma County supervisors on Monday advanced to voters a tax hike on hotel beds in west county, launching what is likely to be a highly divisive political fight over the allotment of diminished private dollars for strained public services in the region.

Joe Bartolomei, owner of the Farmhouse Inn in Forestville, is opposed to the county's proposed hike on hotel bed taxes, considering the challenges facing the industry at this time. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)


Tourism and lodging officials say the proposed increase is one blow too many for a business sector that has weathered floods, fires and a global pandemic that has erased thousands of local hotel and restaurant jobs and is expected to halve visitor spending statewide by the end of the year. Under the higher proposed lodging tax of 16% — up from 12% — travelers will stray to other areas, business bookings will dwindle and some hotels may choose to roll up their carpets altogether, industry representatives said.


“To me, the timing feels just awful,” said Joe Bartolomei, co-owner of The Farmhouse Inn in Forestville. “Tourism and travel has been affected immensely by COVID-19. We have just been decimated.”


But the educators, firefighters and west county residents backing the measure and its champion, Lynda Hopkins, their elected supervisor, see the move as a lifeline.


If two-thirds of west county voters agree in March, the tax would generate up to $2.7 million a year for public schools and several fire districts. It could help forestall closure of Forestville’s high school, El Molino, and keep an ambulance permanently on duty at the coast, where visitor traffic accounts for up to 80% of fire and emergency medical calls.


Supporters say the tax hike taps an out-of-town revenue stream to sustain services needed by residents and visitors alike.


“What a great way to put money in the things we hold important in life directly from the impactors!” said Gillian Hayes, a Forestville mother and El Molino advocate who operates vacation rentals in Guerneville that would be subject to the higher tax.


With entrenched interests wading in on both sides, the fight is likely to dominate west county political life for the next three months, pitting lodging operators and tourism boosters at the heart of the local economy against school supporters and fire districts — a ragged divide in towns where people wear many public hats and politics skews liberal and libertarian.


Hopkins, who spearheaded the proposal and helped engineer last-minute changes to add school funding to the measure, said she did not see the political question in such stark terms. She has touted the tax as a local solution to a local problem, including shortfalls in education funding — an issue that typically falls to state or district officials.


“At the end of the day, I don’t think solving an issue for one community hurts another community,” Hopkins said.


But for Board of Supervisors Chair Susan Gorin, a two-decade veteran in local government and the swing vote Monday for a measure that needed four-fifths approval, the decision was agonizing.


"I’m going to support it, but man, I hate supporting this. I think it’s the wrong way to go,” said Gorin, who opted to give west county voters the final say. “And we should have taken more time to think through this."


In addition to west county public school districts, other beneficiaries of the tax money would include the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District and the Sonoma County Fire Protection District, which all together serve a sprawling area from Sebastopol and along the lower Russian River to the Sonoma Coast.


The county’s foray into education funding, especially, raised alarms for some of the tax measure’s critics, who say it could deepen provincial self-interest in local government.


“You’re pitting school district against school district. You’re pitting fire district against fire district. You’re pitting, really, supervisorial district against supervisorial district,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, the lone board member to vote against the measure.


Gorin agreed, but eventually voted in favor of the measure despite reservations. After last week, it was the second formal vote needed at the board to advance the tax to voters.


In her last sales pitch Monday, Hopkins zeroed in on the crucial services provided by firefighters and schools, and she argued west county’s tourism-backed economy will thrive as long as its coast, rivers and redwoods are there to visit.


“I will acknowledge (the proposal) is unique,” Hopkins said. “But so is the tourism industry.”


Hopkins has long sought funding solutions for west county fire districts, which have turned to smaller tax hikes of their own to shore up funding and boost staffing levels. Still, district officials say, they can’t keep up with the massive influx of seasonal visitors to the region.


“This is a critical measure to support continued provision of fire and emergency medical services,” said Chief Mark Heine, with the Sonoma County Fire District, citing the high number of calls for visitors to the Russian River and coast. “This measure simply asks the visitors and tourists to pay for the services provided to them.”


In the past month, Hopkins has turned her attention to schools in her district, raising her voice in a tense debate in the West Sonoma County Union High School District, where trustees are studying the possible consolidation of their two main high schools, El Molino and Analy, to address a chronic, multi-million-dollar deficit.


The proposed ballot measure ties school funding to consolidation efforts, rewarding districts that work toward consolidation but stave off campus closures — a key concern for El Molino parents who see their school as first on the chopping block.


Hayes, the Forestville mother of three public school students, has spoken out in favor of the measure in three-straight Board of Supervisors meetings. She said the additional funding would be be crucial to rural districts struggling with declining enrollment and related budget woes. Voters in the region deserved the chance to decide on the tax, she said.


“As an Airbnb owner, and owner of three properties here in west county, I highly support this TOT,” Hayes said Monday, using the acronym for transient occupancy tax — the levy put on overnight stays at hotels, inns and vacation rentals.


The alliance of school and fire service supporters is formidable, and Bartolomei said he’s still trying to wrap his head around what a rival campaign would even look like.


“I don’t want to go up against firefighters and school kids. Nobody does,” he said. “We’ve been put in a really tough position. Now all of a sudden, it’s their money we’re keeping from them. We’ve been set up to fail on this.”


After grappling with pandemic-induced restrictions on business and travel, the county’s tourism industry brings its own set of grievances and woes to the fight. At one point in the pandemic, the county’s $2.3 billion tourism industry, which employs one in 10 residents, reported layoffs across more than 30% of its workforce.


“Family-run businesses are scared about the winter — ‘How are we going to survive this?’” said Bartolomei, vice chair of the Sonoma County Tourism board of directors. “We’ve never, as an industry, been more vulnerable than we are right now.”


Employment rates in the industry have rebounded slightly since the earliest days of the pandemic, adding 100 jobs from September to October. But the county’s leisure and hospitality sector still has 7,300 fewer jobs than it did at this time a year ago, a 28.1% decrease, state data shows.


Lynn Mohrfeld, president of the California Hotel and Lodging Association, said adding to the tax burden on operators could dampen any recovery and risk putting some sites out of business.


“We appreciate the issues (raised), but this will have unintended consequences,” Mohrfeld said at Monday’s meeting.


Tom Birdsall, co-owner of the Hampton Inn and Suites in Windsor and a former investor in the Petaluma Sheraton, might benefit from a tax-induced tourist exodus from west county. But he spoke against the measure Monday, arguing it was rushed, lacked proper data and that county leaders should have come to the lodging community to seek input first.


“We do our best work here in Sonoma County when we work together,” Birdsdall said.


That’s why the next three months will be tough, Bartolomei signaled Monday, with competing high stakes for anchor businesses in tourism and two mainstays of civic life, fire departments and schools.


“I can already tell that it’s going to be a hugely polarizing campaign,” Bartolomei said. “There’s no way for it not do be. You’re already in one camp or the other. Both need to exist here.”


EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to provide the correct spelling for Tom Birdsall’s name, and to clarify his involvement with the Petaluma Sheraton hotel.


Originally Published in the Sonoma Index Tribute, December 1, 2020, You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.


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