Two more tax items appear to be headed toward a crowded November election ballot where there are already 12 statewide initiatives and several other local tax questions for voters of individual cities and government agencies.
An early renewal of a quarter-cent sales tax to support county transportation projects was approved for the Nov. 3 ballot by the Sonoma County Transportation Authority on Monday and the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday took the first steps to add a new quarter-cent sales tax to support mental health, addiction and homeless services.
The November ballot is growing to epic proportions with dozens of municipal, school board and special district elections, plus statewide Congressional elections and the U.S. Presidency race. (California’s two U.S. Senate seats are not up for election in 2020.) All registered voters will receive mail-in ballots due to special considerations during the COVID-19 pandemic while some public polling places will operate to receive drop-in ballots on Election Day.
Recent polling of likely Sonoma County voters by consultants found “strong support” above the two-thirds requirement for both county sales tax questions. Pollster Ruth Bernstein said both measures enjoy favorable support even when appearing on the same ballot. She cautioned the supervisors that “voter moods are changing now more than ever” and she said the next four months before November could bring surprises in voters’ sentiments, mostly due to any economic downturns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The mental health and homeless measure would fund expanded behavioral health facilities, emergency and crisis psychiatric services including new mobile support teams, mental health and substance abuse outpatient services for all ages and coordinated behavioral services for the county’s homeless population.
The new quarter-cent sales tax is expected to generate $25 million annually. The transportation sales tax is not new and is an extension of the original Measure M, first approved in 2004. It is set to expire in 2024 and voters will now be asked to extend it for another 20 years. Two countywide sales tax proposals for the SMART train operations and a new countywide fund for fire safety staffing and equipment were defeated in the recent March election. All sales tax measures require two-thirds majority votes to pass.
The five supervisors unanimously supported advancing the mental health and homeless question to the November ballot. Final ballot language must be approved by Aug. 4 when the supervisors will hold another public session on its merits or final changes.
“The need keeps increasing (for mental health services),” said 4th District Supervisor James Gore, “and the money keeps decreasing. I know some people would ask why put a new tax on the ballot in the middle of a pandemic, but if not now, when? I know I would vote for it and that’s my ultimate test.”
5th District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins supported the addition of mobile response units that are comprised of behavioral health and homeless outreach personnel and usually accompanied by law enforcement officers. She favored an approach where emergency and other calls went through social service channels instead of through law enforcement, calling it a “more thoughtful proposal.”
Work on the sales tax measure began in May 2019 with a study of service gaps and needs covering an array of mental health, homeless support, suicide prevention, substance abuse, crisis intervention and emergency housing — all programs that have seen a series of budget cuts in recent years.
“We are far, far short of what we need,” Bill Carter, of the county’s health and social services department, told the supervisors. The need for more homeless services has expanded while there have been “painful reductions to programs,” he said.
If approved, the tax ordinance would be subject to an annual public review by an oversight committee. The funds could not be used for other purposes and they could not be extracted by the state government, a staff report outlined. A team of consultants and pollsters were paid $458,300 to complete the proposal endorsed by the supervisors on Tuesday.
Measure M, the county’s major transportation fund since 2004, has collected and spent $450 million on Highway 101 widening, rural road maintenance, mass transit subsidies, passenger rail (SMART) and bike trails. As a “self-help” county, the Sonoma County Transportation Authority has qualified for over a billion dollars in federal and state matching transportation grants.
The local November election ballot becomes final on Aug. 7 when the county registrar of voters will draft the final consolidated ballot. Alphabet titles of individual tax measures are randomly drawn on Aug. 13.