Sonoma County Regional Parks to pitch new sales tax measure

Nineteen months after a hard-fought battle to secure new funding for county parks narrowly failed at the polls, Sonoma County Regional Parks officials are gearing up to pitch a more modest sales tax measure they hope to get on the November ballot.

A draft proposal to be presented to the county Board of Supervisors today calls for an eighth-cent sales tax to be imposed countywide, both in cities and in unincorporated areas of the county.

The new tax would raise an estimated $11.5 million annually over its 10-year lifespan, with one-third of the proceeds distributed to municipal parks and recreation services and the remainder going to county regional parks.

After 50 years in operation without a dedicated funding source, park managers say a stable funding stream is long overdue if the department hopes to meet growing demand and keep up with deferred maintenance needs — not to mention recovery from last year’s fires.

Department expenses continue to rise, yet contributions from the county general fund, though slightly improved from a few years ago, remain below pre-recession levels, park officials said.

“We need to stabilize the park system and bring in the essential stabilizing funds that will allow us to tread water, because we’re not right now,” Deputy Parks Director Melanie Parker said.

After the loss of Measure J in 2016, county supervisors pledged $1 million a year for two years from new bed tax revenues approved in the same election. But it’s a temporary boost, and only enough to help the department limp along until a new ballot proposal was ready, parks Director Bert Whitaker said.

“This just keeps our parks department from cratering in the meantime,” Whitaker said.

Advocates in the community already have been organizing and raising campaign funds in hopes the ballot measure goes forward, according to Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore.

The board won’t take any official action on the measure until next month, but speaking for himself, Gore said, “I’m hugely supportive.”

The park system was founded in 1967 with Doran Beach and has since grown to encompass56 parks, including open spaces and marinas. The department oversees more than 11,000 acres — twice the acreage of just 10 years ago, in large part due to conservation land acquisitions. The department also maintains 150 miles of trail.

Day use at county parks has doubled over the past five years, and park visitation now exceeds 5 million annually, park officials said,

But “we’re living on borrowed time right now,” Whitaker said.

The department, then under the leadership of Caryl Hart, had been betting on the passage of Measure J to secure funding for the burgeoning park system. That measure called for a half-cent sales tax paid in unincorporated areas of the county only — a feature some voters found unfairly burdensome to county residents.

It would have raised an estimated $95 million for county parks over 10 years.

But despite support from about 65 percent of those who voted in the November 2016 election, Measure J fell 1,100 votes short of winning the two-thirds majority necessary to pass.

With a finish so tantalizingly close to success, supporters began almost immediately to seek another way forward at the ballot box.

Regional parks staffers, meanwhile, embarked more than a year ago on a series of community engagement efforts both to shape the new proposal and test support for it. Outreach included meetings and conversations with community leaders and stakeholders, presentations to dozens of community groups, polling and recent mail surveys.