West County TOT ties the fates of west county emergency services, schools, hotels together

Sonoma West Times & News

December 16, 2020

Voters will decide whether to levy an additional 4% transient occupancy tax (TOT) for guests of west county hotels and vacation rentals to increase funding for coastal emergency services and west county schools in a March 2, 2021 election.

The text of the West County Transient Occupancy Tax measure said the hike would bring in an estimated $2.7 million annually, to be used exclusively for west county “to support sustainable paramedic emergency medical and rescue services provided by local fire agencies and to support West County schools and education.”

The Sonoma County Registrar of Voters Office posted an online notice of the special election to be held “in the area of unincorporated Sonoma County consisting of the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District and the West Sonoma County Union High School District.”

If the measure passes, the 4% added tax would crown a 16% lodging tax in total, among the highest if not the most expensive in California. According to a Nov. 30 ordinance regarding the West County TOT area, the principal players are the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District (BBFPD) pursuing consolidation with the Sonoma County Fire District (SCFD) and the West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD) staving off consolidation of Analy, El Molino and Laguna high schools.

5th District Supervisor Assures TOT is a Long-Term Solution

5th District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins countered some community concerns that the measure would be a band-aid solution to issues facing west county, saying the TOT guarantees the region “return to source funding” and voters can appeal or amend the measure at any time.

“And what’s really critical about that is it can’t be pulled away to be spent in any other part of the county. It has to go back to the community where the revenue was generated and that’s a really big deal for an unincorporated area,” she said contrasting it with the cash flow of established cities.

She said the one challenge she would acknowledge is that the TOT can waver year to year, while parcel taxes are predictable, so maintaining reserves could be important.

As west county community members rally to defend the El Molino campus from possible consolidation, Hopkins said many parents told her “the consolidation feels more like an amputation and that a tourniquet was applied to El Molino where it was starved for services, which led to a decline in enrollment, and now they’re shutting down the campus.”

She said she felt especially concerned about national studies connecting higher commute times and high school dropout rates, considering cumulative transportation time for more rural students. Hopkins has hopes for west county’s district-wide unification study, since regional fire agencies have since set aside prior reluctance to joining with their neighbors realizing they may be stronger together.

Regarding the impact on lodging operators, Hopkins said there comes a tipping point with the tourist economy critical to west county. “And that’s where I don't want to fall too far, where we’re only vacation rentals and tourists because then we really lose what makes us west county, which is the locals who are here rain or shine, fire or flood, through thick and thin, helping each other out.”

The supervisor said she was also trying to pass an economic stimulus package in January for small business owners suffering in the pandemic.

The seasonal nature of the tourist economy poses difficulty to the region, she said. “So, folks are often juggling multiple jobs, trying to make ends meet, and then when you have a seasonal workforce combined with sky-high housing prices, we start to lose our workers. We start to lose our families. And so that’s the kind of concern we’re trying to address through investing in the education system,” she said.

Hopkins said she’s been in ongoing conversations with BBFPD since she first campaigned for supervisor in 2016. “We’ve continued to throw them one-time lifelines from the county general fund to try to ensure they wouldn’t have to lay off staff, but that’s just not a way for their staff to feel secure and their community to feel secure that they would have the resources they need going forward,” she said.

Allowing BBFPD to straggle along with limited resources poses great risk to Bodega Bay if one of its ambulances makes the long drive to a hospital in Santa Rosa, sometimes hours-long trips including wait time at the medical facility, leaving Bodega Bay undefended until it returns.

BBFPD’s taxpayer base struggles to hold up region 8.5 times its size

Assistant Fire Chief Steve Herzberg said he could not advocate for or against the measure, but that his role does allow him to educate on issues facing the fire district.

“We are trying to maintain a fully staffed, 24/7 safety net for the coastal visitors and the people who live here. We are constantly being challenged by the loss of talented paramedics because our pay scale is too low and because their jobs are constantly at risk,” Herzberg said.

The fire district needs money from somewhere to afford consolidating with SCFD or face the prospect of cutting staff, according to the Nov. 30 ordinance from the Board of Supervisors regarding the West County TOT area.

Herzberg provided supplementary documents he authored over the summer on behalf of BBFPD’s board of directors in relation to the county’s financial analysis of the fire district demonstrating the district’s struggle to secure the coast where 80% of its calls for emergency services come from visitors. In other words, the district is providing service to nonresidents, and is therefore not being funded approproately by the limited taxpayer base.

One letter to audit manager Kanchan K. Charan and Melissa Osso of the Auditor-Controller-Treasurer-Tax Collector’s Office said BBFPD serves a region 8.5 times bigger than its 27-square-mile tax district, serving Bodega, Valley Ford, Bloomfield, some of Monte Rio and by contract, some of Marin County sidling against its border with Sonoma County. BBFPD’s ambulances provide mutual aid as far flung as The Sea Ranch and Santa Rosa.

Meanwhile, the area that once patched together the Bodega Bay Volunteer Fire Department and the Bodega Bay Area Rescue for the fishing community funds BBFPD to aid mostly tourists through a $524 district parcel tax, the letter said. Two thirds of the district's territory cannot be fully taxed due to state and county beneficial land use policies, it said.

The letter continued to say funding from the county to support the fire district has been inconsistent, leading BBFPD to drain its reserves to keep a full-staff on hand, which includes paying workers overtime to cover shifts emptied from those who left for higher pay. Herzberg said BBFPD is about to lose its 11th paramedic in eight years.

“So, consolidating with Sonoma County Fire and getting the strength of being a larger agency will give us the sustainability and solidity to hold onto our employees and better serve the community,” he said.

WSCUHSD board president calls for district unity for West County TOT and parcel tax

WSCUHSD board president Jeanne Fernandes said the schools’ communities cannot afford to be divided around the West County TOT or the district’s parcel tax sharing the ballot if they want more time to discuss potential consolidation.

She said the passage of the lodging tax could buy about a year’s worth of conversation before the district may need to take the plunge if the district parcel tax flops. If voters approve both taxes, the district may have about two years to plan and dialogue.

Fernandes said she’s mended fences with Hopkins since their more public conflict over the measure’s last-minute inclusion of west county schools.

County supervisors softened language that originally could have blocked schools from receiving TOT funds if they might ultimately choose consolidation. From there, the WSCUHSD board approved a resolution endorsing the measure. “And we can only hope that it would pass so we can actually give the families that would like a little extra time to try to plan for an eventual consolidation,” she said.

Fernandes said she personally views consolidation as not only inevitable, but the best way to increase opportunities for students by achieving a critical mass for more electives and sports. She acknowledged some families are holding out for the west county district wide unification study to secure savings.

“That’s great, (but) we won’t know that for a while, I’m afraid to say,” Fernandes said.

Fernandes sits on the county committee overseeing the district-wide unification study, which she described as a long, grueling process with more “mountains to climb” after the results come in.

“Right now, our district cannot be and should not be separated,” she said. “So, we’re hopeful, we want to be solvent. We want to be as supportive of these measures as we can be so that they actually have an opportunity to pass … to buy us time ... to have more concrete discussions about how we solve our financial problems.”

Mobilizing the hospitality industry against the TOT

Joe Bartolomei runs the Farmhouse Inn with his sister in Forestville. Since the pandemic begain, he’s reduced his staff from 80 to 40, he said. Bartolomei, also vice chair of the Sonoma County Tourism board of directors, said everyone is experiencing “shades of bad to really bad” in the hospitality industry.

The lodging operators of the 5th district seek to organize a campaign against the measure launching in January beside other small businesses, he said. According to Bartolomei, the Russian River Chamber of Commerce would take an active role, along with the Sonoma County Hospitality Association.

“It’s going to be a very polarizing campaign. It’s a really awful situation we’ve been put in,” he said. “Hotels fighting against schools and firefighters?”

Bartolomei views the move as dragging lodging operations into a rushed and flimsy plan he didn’t learn about until mid-November, without prior discussion.

While Bartolomei said he understands the importance of coastal emergency services, he wished he could’ve suggested the tourist industry help educate visitors about safety risks. He said he doesn’t support siphoning tourism funds to WSCUHSD when the infusion might only delay consolidation.

“It’s really only a short-term fix. But once it gets passed, it’s a forever thing for the small hotel and lodging operators here in the 5th district, so none of us feel good about shoring up a school that’s still going to fail. We’re just kind of delaying the inevitable based on what their school board has reported.”

The timing too is problematic, and to Bartolomei feels it’s one more sign that county supervisors don’t support the hospitality industry, despite the fact it serves as the foundation of the local economy, indirectly or directly powering most of its businesses.

“You look at the towns like Bodega Bay and Guerneville and Monte Rio, the river towns. All those businesses, the restaurants, bars, the hotels, the vacation rentals all rely on outside visitation and outside visitation dollars,” he said.

“To have this levy put upon us now, at a time when we’re so vulnerable and so short-staffed, it’s just I think the timing couldn’t be worse,” he said. “It will impede our recovery, without a doubt.”

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer. Originally published in the Sonoma West Times & News,

View the original article here.

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