West Sonoma County voters weigh proposed funding measures for schools, emergency services


February 16, 2021, 12:18PM

Voters in west Sonoma County will decide the fate of two tax measures that will shape the future of the area’s high schools while determining the ability of firefighters and paramedics to keep up with a growing volume of calls for service on the coast.

Residents of Sebastopol and unincorporated west Sonoma County will submit mail ballots or head to polling places to vote on Measures A and B in the March 2 special election. Measure A, a proposed parcel tax, would raise money for the region’s cash-strapped high school district. That district, along with other west county school districts, also would be potential recipients of funds from Measure B, which would increase an existing tax on hotel stays and vacation rentals. Revenue from Measure B would be split evenly between school districts and fire agencies in west county.

Both measures require a two-thirds majority to pass.

Of the two, Measure B has attracted more debate in the weeks leading up to Election Day, largely because it marks an unprecedented attempt by the county to tap into a type of tax never before used to fund public schools. A collective of hoteliers and other business owners from across the county are backing a campaign to defeat the measure.

If Measure B passes, it would increase the lodgings tax in west Sonoma County by 4 percentage points, from 12% to 16%. County staff have estimated the new tax rate would generate about $2.7 million annually, a figure that opponents dispute in light of the pandemic’s toll on the hospitality industry.

The bed tax, initially envisioned as a mechanism solely to fund fire districts in west Sonoma County, was modified in late fall to include schools following an effort spearheaded by 5th District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins to avert the closure of a west county high school. The revenue it generates would allow the Sonoma County Fire District to consolidate with the Bodega Bay Fire District, said Mark Heine, chief of the county fire district. That, in turn, would save Bodega Bay residents several hundred dollars annually on the steep parcel tax they now pay.

The current parcel tax rate of $524 is estimated to fall to $184 after consolidation, according to Steve Herzberg, assistant fire chief of the Bodega Bay Fire District, which serves an area about eight and a half times as large as its taxpaying district.

“We have been waiting for years,” Herzberg said. “Some people miss the fact that the original goal (of the measure) was to consolidate.”

An audit of the Bodega Bay Fire District’s calls for service found that 80% were in response to visitors who don’t pay property taxes in the district. The department has faced a growing deficit for a number of years, and proponents of the tourism tax increase pitch it as a way to relieve the burden on coastal residents, who have been subsidizing tourists through the parcel tax.

With such a stretched budget, the fire department struggles to respond to its ever-growing volume of calls, and an ambulance is not always available when needed.

“It’s in the best interest for visitors as well as the locals to have a mechanism that enables coverage,” said Denny Rosatti, consultant for the Tax Tourists Fairly campaign. “We feel Measure B is a fair way to get there.” But hoteliers opposing the tax measure say the idea of raising taxes on their businesses, already struggling during the pandemic, is misplaced. Overnight guests represent only a small percentage of the estimated 4 to 6 million annual visitors to the coastal region, said Crista Luedtke, owner of boon hotel and spa in Guerneville, who is helping lead the opposition campaign, called Save Sonoma Jobs.

“If we want to collect money from tourists that visit the coast, let’s do that. Just to put it on people staying in the 5th District? Since COVID, everything is so much more expensive — all the new protocols, the (personal protective equipment). All of it costs more for us. But I’m going to be somewhat reticent to raise my own rates because the total dollars spent when you come to stay with me will have gone up exponentially, if this passes.” - Crista Leudkte, Owner Boon Hotel and Spa.

“If we want to collect money from tourists that visit the coast, let’s do that,” Luedtke said. Parking meters or day fees, she said, could be alternatives to collect money from a wider spectrum of visitors, including those who live in Sonoma County and tie up emergency resources while visiting the coast.

“Just to put it on people staying in the 5th District?” she asked. “Since COVID, everything is so much more expensive — all the new protocols, the (personal protective equipment). All of it costs more for us. But I’m going to be somewhat reticent to raise my own rates because the total dollars spent when you come to stay with me will have gone up exponentially, if this passes.”

Hopkins’ inclusion of schools in Measure B added new layers to the discussion in the fall.

Her move to do so came on the heels of intense debate in the West Sonoma County Union High School District about the possibility of consolidating high schools in Sebastopol and Forestville onto one campus because of a budget deficit. The possibility that the school board would approve moving forward with consolidation as soon as fall 2021 was deeply unpopular with some parents, especially those from Forestville, who felt their campus, El Molino High, was more likely to be closed than Analy High, the Sebastopol school.

Schools belonged in the measure, Hopkins said, because the high school district’s budget woes are tied to declining enrollment. An increase in vacation rentals and rising housing costs have driven some residents out of west county, contributing to the drag on enrollment, the Tax Tourists Fairly campaign argues. “I think now is as good a time as there is because of how serious (the budget crisis) is,” Rosatti said.

Hopkins said that for the first couple of years, the tax revenue raised could be used to help keep the high school district’s budget intact while leaders await the findings of a study conducted by the Sonoma County Office of Education, expected to be complete sometime in 2022. The study will examine the potential merits of West Sonoma County Union High School District unifying with one or more of its 10 feeder elementary districts. “We’re trying to figure out what is the best way to maintain the excellence we know our community deserves,” said Kellie Noe, who leads the school board for the West Sonoma County Union High School District. In the fall, she voted both to put the parcel tax on the ballot and endorse the tourism tax.

The education funds are not limited to the high school or even the elementary districts, however, according to the text of the measure. Money could be distributed to educational programs ranging from early childhood to adult education and job training.

An Education Advisory Committee composed of parents or students, business owners and school staff, among others, would set criteria for viable projects and make recommendations to the Board of Supervisors for approval, according to the text of the measure. Luedtke said that business owners also object to Measure B because it is designed to continue until modified or repealed.

“What people don’t understand is this tax lives on in perpetuity for us,” she said. “If it was a short-term fix for a short-term problem, there probably would be nobody fighting it.”

Save Sonoma Jobs is working to see the measure defeated at the ballot box. But members have also begun to explore the possibility of mounting a lawsuit if the measure does pass.

“We feel strongly that a legal challenge has a lot of merit,” said Bryce Skolfield, treasurer for the opposition campaign and a hotel owner in Guerneville. He declined to disclose details about what part of the measure the campaign might attack in court.

Hopkins said the threatened lawsuit was “disappointing, to be honest.”

Save Sonoma Jobs will continue to fundraise to cover the potential costs of a lawsuit, Skolfield said. The group quickly surpassed its initial goal of $20,000, which it expanded after realizing Sebastopol residents also would be voting on the tax increase.

Tax Tourists Fairly has surpassed its goal of $25,000 in received or pledged contributions, Rosatti said. Campaigns’ updated list of donations and contributors will be available after a Feb. 18 filing deadline. In most recent filings from mid-January, each campaign had only raised a few thousand dollars, with the bulk of contributions appearing to come in after that.

The Yes on Measure A campaign budget is smaller, but comparable to past parcel tax campaigns, said Debbie Ramirez, who leads the effort. The campaign had raised about $15,000 by mid-February, she said. “We’ve had a lot of grassroots support,” Ramirez said. “Little donations on the website, anywhere from $5 to $250.”

All the campaigns have had to adjust their methods to accommodate the safety demands of the ongoing pandemic, and text banking, phone calls and literature distribution have been common to each of them. Ramirez said she and other volunteers have been focused on communicating the facts about Measure A, including that seniors older than 65 and people receiving Social Security or disability would be exempted, and that owners of contiguous parcels would only have to pay the tax for the one where their primary residence is. The tax, which amounts to $48 per parcel on up to 23,942 properties in the West Sonoma County Union High School District, is projected to raise almost $1.2 million annually. It would expire after three years. Noe said that passing either one of the taxes will provide some additional time for the school district’s board to make decisions about unifying or, if necessary, consolidation.

“We’ve done so much around our budget and have been able to get our budget to a place of maintaining quality programs,” she said. “Now, we’re at the place where difficult decisions have to be made.” You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Originally Published in the Press Democrat on Tuesday, February 16, 2021.


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