The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, in a bid to address a chronic funding shortfall for road maintenance, is moving ahead with plans to place a quarter-cent sales tax on the November ballot, where the proposal would join a half-dozen other measures from cities and schools seeking tax increases from voters.
The move, foreshadowed by the county for more than a year as one possible fix to its road repair woes, has seen scant public debate so far, with an initial outline of the tax measure surfacing little more than two weeks ago.
The tight timeline has given cities, which would share in the tax revenue, little chance for formal input. At least one city council — Petaluma’s — has declared it will not support the county-driven proposal, concerned it could undermine voter support for the city’s own sales tax measure this fall.
Still, despite those political headwinds and other questions swirling over how local municipalities might spend the additional tax revenue — estimated at $537 million over 20 years — county officials argued that the beleaguered local road network needs a sustained infusion of cash if it is to be fixed at the pace the public demands.
“We can’t afford to wait,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. “We all need to give a little bit to ensure that we have a better quality of life, and that means investing in roads.”
Proceeds from the tax would be divided among the county and its nine cities through a formula weighing population and the number of road miles in each jurisdiction. The measure would raise $20 million in the first year, with the county getting $8.7 million, Santa Rosa receiving $5.4 million, Petaluma $1.8 million and lesser amounts for the seven other cities.
The proposal advanced by the county Tuesday would be a general sales tax measure, requiring only a simple majority to pass. An accompanying advisory ballot measure would require voters to affirm the use of the new revenue for road projects, including city streets and the 1,382-mile network overseen by the county.
The arrangement sidesteps the higher hurdle that would come in a special sales tax for roads, which would require a two-thirds majority to pass.
At Tuesday’s board hearing, a dozen speakers including road funding advocates, cyclists, public safety officials, school board members, environmentalists, construction workers and transit advocates addressed supervisors. Most voiced support for the tax plan.
Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, said he wanted to make sure the extra revenue would be used to improve roads using the so-called complete streets approach, which calls for upgrading bike paths, lighting and sidewalks along with the pavement.
“What really excites me, and concerns me, is getting city commitment for the complete streets approach,” he said. “Otherwise, this is just great. We’ll help you in whatever way possible. It will be a challenge to do the education and outreach to make sure this passes.”
The move comes four years after the county touched off a political firestorm over roads when officials suggested that funding was so tight and some roads in such poor condition that the county would have to let them crumble and return to gravel and dirt.
Under a stopgap plan to avoid that scenario, over the past three years supervisors have injected an additional $8 million from the county general fund to repair about 100 miles of county roads — a small fraction of the overall network, with a maintenance backlog estimated at $268 million.
Supervisors last month approved a long-term plan that relies on new sales tax revenue, along with the current support from the general fund, to chip away at the problem, which the county has attributed largely to declining state gas tax revenue, the main source of local road repair funding.
Critics, including county fiscal watchdogs, have pointed to years of flat or lagging discretionary spending on roads and the rise in other taxpayer expenses, including county pensions.
But Board Chairman David Rabbitt, an architect of the long-term roads plan along with Supervisor Mike McGuire, said he could see no option other than a tax increase to solve the repair problem.
“We know the only way to permanently turn the corner is new revenue,” Rabbitt said.
Outreach to voters, however, could be tricky, especially in some cities where officials have not had a chance to publicly vet the tax proposal. The language that cities contributed to the tentative advisory measure governing their spending plans was crafted at the staff level with limited input from elected officials, according to the county.
The Petaluma City Council wasted no time last week in voicing its criticism of the roads tax, saying the city’s share of revenue under the proposal wasn’t equitable and wouldn’t be enough to fix its most important road—Highway 101, where a widening project through the city remains partially funded. The City Council, which has proposed its own 1-cent sales tax for the November ballot, passed a resolution of non-support for the countywide measure.
“It confuses the issue as to whose measure is going to get work done and whose isn’t,” Petaluma City Manager John Brown said last week. “It also stacks measures on top of each other.”
Hours after the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, the Santa Rosa City Council heard its first presentation about the sales tax proposal and expressed a number of concerns, including the legality of its structure and the equity of the funding formula.
Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom said it seemed odd to her that the measure was being proposed as a nonspecific general tax while promising to direct the funds toward roads.
“I’m a little concerned about some of the legal gymnastics that I’m hearing,” she said.
Other council members questioned the allocation formula, particularly why the city would get 27 percent of the funds when it has 33 percent of the county’s population. The council took no action but asked staff to return with more information.
“I think we’ve communicated pretty clearly that we’re nervous about it,” Mayor Scott Bartley said.
The advisory measure gives cities some flexibility over where the future revenue would be spent. Petaluma’s plan would dedicate the money for completing Highway 101 widening through the city and building a long-desired cross-town thoroughfare at Rainier Avenue.
Santa Rosa’s portion of the advisory measure says the city would spend up to 10 percent of its tax money on public transit. Supervisors next week are set to discuss making the same allocation, adding public transit upgrades into a spending plan where none are currently foreseen.
Supervisor Efren Carrillo asked whether the county transit system had a need for 10 percent of the funds, or if that was “the number that makes (the tax measure) politically acceptable.” He voiced his concern about the effect of the other tax measures proposed by cities and school districts.
“The timing may be challenging,” he said. “My fear is that we may have voter burnout on tax measures.”
The county on Tuesday also advanced an eighth-cent library sales tax measure that, if passed in November along with the roads tax, would push the county’s sales tax rate above the state-mandated limit of 9.5 percent and require special approval from the Legislature to be enacted. Cotati’s current 9.25 percent sales tax rate, the highest in the county, already is near the cap.
Craig Harrison, co-founder of the road funding advocacy organization Save Our Sonoma Roads, said his group would support the tax measure if transit funding were not part of the spending plan.
“We need to figure out a better way to do transit,” he said. “It would be a horrible mistake. Our members are astonished that more money would be put into (transit).”
As part of the plan, the cities and county would designate the Sonoma County Transportation Authority to administer the sales tax. The agency already oversees the countywide Measure M sales tax money, which mostly goes toward highway projects. The county and cities each year would submit a spending plan to the transportation authority that outlines where the new sales tax money would be spent.
Supervisor Susan Gorin said she supported the sales tax measure and the roads plan, but said it may be frustrating for some rural residents who might not see work being done on their roads. The county plan proposes to use the $8.7 million it would receive initially from the sale tax measure, plus general fund money and other sources, to allocate $40 million a year to fix more than 800 miles of roads in unincorporated areas that are important for tourism and agriculture. The worst county roads would get $1 million annually.
“It’s not terribly satisfying to say to folks that your road may never be paved because it only serves a few of you,” Gorin said. “Some people are threatening to send me their auto repair bills and letting the county pay for it.”
The Board of Supervisors will meet Aug. 5 to formally place the tax proposal on the ballot and craft the county portion of the advisory measure. The deadline to place a measure on the ballot is Aug. 8.