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Voters asked to support early renewal of ¼-cent sales tax for roads and transit

The mix of local county, municipal, school and special district tax measures on the Nov. 3 ballots of Sonoma County voters partly defines what current elected officials see as top government spending priorities, exclusive of ongoing programs to fight wildfires and the coronavirus pandemic.

These include renewed school district parcel taxes to counter declining per pupil state funding; extended sales tax measures in Healdsburg and Cloverdale to fund community and utility services; and, two countywide measures to provide mental health and homeless services and to continue a dedicated 1/4-cent sales tax for transportation, trails and roads projects for 20 more years.

There are enough new and renewing tax measures to raise a united business community opposition to all of them with a single message of “No — not now.” The Sonoma County Farm Bureau, North Bay Leadership Council and North Coast Builders Exchange are urging all local governments to focus more on spending cuts and less on more taxes.

“There are double-digit unemployment rates, small businesses are shuttered and economists predict almost half of those businesses will not reopen. Local families are struggling to pay bills and adjust to a virtual school model,” a statement from the Leadership Council reads. “We are fighting a health pandemic, but the resulting economic crisis will most likely have a longer effect on the well-being of our community.

Ironically, a measure such as the transportation and roads Measure DD would usually win a strong endorsement from these business groups for its job creation and infrastructure projects. But not this year.

Measure DD would extend for 20 years a ¼-cent sales tax first approved in 2004 and is due to expire in 2025 without a two-thirds voter approval of the Nov. 3 measure.

Proponents of Measure DD claim no new taxes would be involved because it is an extension of the same tax already in place. Opponents point to the added 20 years of continuing taxes that would total $520 million, currently not authorized.

The extended sales tax would generate $26 million annually, according to a fiscal impact statement by county auditor Erick Roeser.

Prior to 2004, Sonoma and Marin county voters rejected a new sales tax aimed primarily to widen Highway 101. The tax was approved by the required two-thirds margin in a second try in 2004. Over the past 16 years, a total of $321 million in taxes has been collected and the Highway 101 widening is now in its final stages.

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Going forward, Measure DD funds would be allocated to repairing county roads and some city streets (38%); fund new transportation-related safety and efficiency projects (27%); subsidize bus and public transit and “first mile/last mile” connection projects; and add new bicycle lanes and pedestrian trails (12%.)

Also, each incorporated city would get a portion of Measure DD funds based on a percentage of street miles. Annual estimated amounts per city would be: Cloverdale ($157,393), Healdsburg ($215,865), Windsor ($455,837) and Sebastopol ($126,852.)

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The transportation funds are controlled by the Sonoma County Transportation Authority (SCTA), comprised of three county supervisors and a member from each of the nine incorporated cities. There is also a 25-member citizens advisory committee, appointed by the supervisors and charged with general oversight and public disclosures.

Since 2004, Sonoma County has qualified as a “self-help” county, making it eligible for matching state and federal transportation funds. According to SCTA officials, the county’s $321 million in local funds has received a 5:1 ratio of additional state and federal funding over the past 16 years, the majority of it allocated to the multi-decade Highway 101 widening projects.

The Operating Engineers Local 3, the Transportation and Land-Use Coalition, Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition and the local Engineering Contractors association have endorsed measure DD.

Going forward, the SCTA must complete a new state-mandated multi-year strategic plan by Dec. 31, 2023.

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