Measure B

Measure B proposes taxing overnight tourists to fund emergency services and schools

If a teacher, a firefighter and a hotel owner walked into a bar in west county, they'd have a lot to talk about concerning Measure B, a proposed 4% rise in the transient occupancy tax (TOT) for the region. 

Measure B seeks to charge visitors an additional 4% TOT at inns, hotels, motels, vacation rentals and bed and breakfasts in the combined unincorporated regions of the West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD) and the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District (BBFPD), the county counsel’s impartial analysis of the measure said.

If the measure succeeds with two-thirds approval, half of the estimated $2.7 million raised would go to west county paramedic emergency medical and rescue services and consolidating the area’s local fire agencies and half to sustaining west county school facilities and programs, according to the measure’s full text. 

Overnight guests would effectively pay a 16% transient occupancy tax in this “West County Transient Occupancy Tax Area” established in the proposal because the 4% would add to an existing 12% general transient occupancy tax on this kind of lodging within all of unincorporated Sonoma County, per the county counsel’s impartial analysis.

Measure B’s full text asserts that tourism has had the impact of visitors straining coastal emergency and rescue service capacity and that second homes bought to convert to vacation rentals priced families out of the region and thus sank local student enrollment.

Meanwhile, members of the west county hospitality industry have organized to fight the proposed levy as they cope with the economic earthquake of the pandemic. The special tax would begin July 1 if passed, the measure’s full text said.

Sonoma West Times & News reported on arguments for and against the lodging tax in December and can be read here.

Hearing from “Tax Tourists Fairly” campaign in favor of Measure B

The “Tax Tourists Fairly” campaign consultant advocating for Measure B’s passage is Dennis Rosatti, principal of the Rosatti Consulting public affairs and campaign firm and husband to WSCUHSD Board President Kellie Noe.

“The money is programmed, number one, to return to source. So, all the money generated from this revenue will come back into the west county. It does not get lost in the county general fund,” he said.

He said the overnight lodging tax is “a creative attempt” to address regional consequences of the tourism industry, namely driving up the cost of living, driving families out of attendance areas and driving most of the coastal emergency service transports.

“We actually live in a fairly high-end, luxury vacation market,” he said, adding people who wanted to stay in a motel would find one in Santa Rosa, not on the coast.

“And it’s not that much money, when you think about it,” he said. “I don’t think that folks are coming here to spend hundreds of dollars on cases of wine and thousands of dollars on their vacation are going to really notice that, and they’re getting such a great benefit back.”

As housing stock lowers, families get priced out and enrollment drops and sinks school funding by average daily attendance, he said.

While opponents to Measure B in the hotel industry have said a 16% transient occupancy tax would complicate a comeback after the pandemic hit hospitality hard, Rosatti said he hadn’t seen any data indicating Measure B would cost jobs. 

“A fair and modest tax on tourists will save the jobs that save lives,” he said. “This measure will serve the visitor equally if not more so than the local because 80% of the transports coming out of Bodega Bay and their ambulance are for non-resident taxpayers,” Rosatti said.

“So, to me, I would think that those visitors would want a high level of service to come when they are in trouble or need emergency health support,” he added.

Half of Measure B’s revenue, an expected $1.35 million, would go toward funding the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District’s consolidation with the broader Sonoma County Fire District (SCFD), an annexation already approved by the Sonoma County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), Rosatti said.

Meanwhile, the county counsel’s impartial analysis said the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors would create an Education Advisory Committee to recommend how to direct the half of Measure B’s revenue for west county schools.

According to Rosatti, Measure B positions to fund WSCUHSD for two or three years so it can maintain its three schools while waiting for the results of an 18-month study on district unification that the Sonoma County Office of Education (SCOE) is now hiring an outside expert to conduct.

Depending on what the 11 west county school districts decide, the funding could go toward unifying elementary and middle school districts once the results come out, should they choose, he said. Further, he said the study could conclude consolidating into one west county high school is the most practical or go as far as suggest two separate regional districts.

“It could come back and say something totally different. It will be interesting to see what the results of that data are,” he said. “After unification plays out,” he said the funds could go to childcare, pre-school education and adult learner and senior education.

“They could be spent on facilities if a school came forward and said, hey, we’ve got a funding gap and we really need to redo our portable units or our roofs or our library needs an update,” he added.

Hearing from the “Save Sonoma Jobs” campaign against Measure B

Guerneville restaurateur and hotelier Crista Luedtke chairs the “Save Sonoma Jobs” campaign against Measure B alongside Joe Bartolomei, the co-owner of Farmhouse Inn located in Forestville.

“This has certainly not been an easy year for hospitality and then put the icing on the cake with Measure B and having to sort of fight hard to ensure that we can continue to bring our people back and not have anything stand in the way of recovery,” Luedtke said.

Luedtke owns boon eat + drink, the restaurant, and boon hotel + spa for boutique lodging, in addition to craft cocktail bar El Barrio and BROT, a modern German eatery.

El Barrio just partially reopened and she hopes to get BROT going again in April, Luedtke said. The proprietor said she started working as a licensed mortgage broker again to pay the bills and bring back staff.

“To be perfectly frank, I’m very confident that we’re going to win this thing. And I believe part of what’s helping the campaign is just the lack of transparency that has happened on the other side and just the rushed timeline,” Luedtke said.

In the formal ballot measure rebuttal, Sonoma County Taxpayers Association Executive Director Dan Drummond criticizes Measure B for a “rushed last minute change” to add in west county school district as recipients of half of the tax funds, should it be approved.

“As originally drafted, Measure B, a tax on overnight lodging, would have raised money to help beleaguered west county fire and paramedic services. Since visitors account for a disproportionate amount of emergency service calls, it makes sense that they should help pay for those services,” Drummond’s statement reads.

“In its current form, Measure B diverts half of its proceeds away from fire and paramedic services while funneling them instead to the high school district. The declining enrollment problem doesn’t go away and the consolidation decision is kicked down the road a couple years. Meanwhile, millions of tax dollars will be wasted propping up the struggling school district,” it continues.

According to Luedtke, the pro-TOT campaign’s slogan, “Tax Tourists Fairly,” isn’t accurate because the proposed levy misses day trippers she said litter and park all over.

The restaurant and hotel owner said the proposal flew to the ballot without consulting with the lodging proprietors “strapped with this,” adding the entrepreneurs could have pitched in ideas.

Luedtke said her rates run “anywhere from I think $215 mid-week up to $375 on a weekend.”

She took issue with the idea that the west county lodgings were luxury and that their guests wouldn’t mind the added fee.

“But what if I wanted to raise my rates 5% or 6%? Because right now, my costs of doing business are so much greater due to the pandemic. There’s hazard pay, there’s cost of PPE, there’s more rigid cleaning protocols,” she said. “So, my actual costs have gone up for my product and now I’m going to potentially not be able to raise my rates because I’m going to start to price people out of the game if I’ve got to slap on another 4%.”

She said she’s been contacted by teachers and people working in local fire agencies saying more people opposed Measure B than would admit it for fear of judgement. Luedtke said the county needed to hold itself accountable to its budget and the district its long-term issues.

“Difficult decisions have to be made. I know I’m not going to be popular for saying that, but at some point, it’s what you have to do to stay in business,” she said.

Editor’s Note: This article was edited to reflect updated information on the district unification study. WSCUHSD had requested SCOE conduct the district unification study and since then, SCOE is hiring “an outside expert and will work with them to actually conduct the study,” according to Jamie Hansen, SCOE Director of Communications on Feb. 26.

(7) comments

Denny

*Prior comment I posted was submitted by Assistant Fire Chief Steve Herzberg, Bodega Bay Fire.

Denny

First, Sonoma County Fire IS what used to be known as Russian River Fire. Same people, same ambulance, same service. The ambulances from the Russian River station and from Bodega Bay are first out for portions of Monte Rio. Russian River is the first out for Cazadero. Bodega Bay covers those areas when the River’s ambulance is out. We also cover up to Sea Ranch, and Occidental when needed. We do not receive a penny of the Parcel Taxes those areas charge.

Second, the Bodega Bay parcel taxpayers pay for the cost of readiness — they ensure that 24/7 there is a trained crew, ready to respond to an emergency. The cost of having full time, paid, Paramedics and an ambulance is substantial. We do not collect one penny of the parcel tax from the areas the writer mentions. The entire cost is paid by the taxpayers of Bodega Bay.

Finally, public provider ambulances do not make a profit. Those billed do not pay enough to ensure the service survives. And, neither they, nor the insurance companies pay the full bill.

Like may public ambulance providers, Bodega Bay receives around 32 cents for every 1 dollar billed.

The Bodega Bay Fire Protection District is 27 square miles; it serves 211 square miles, including those named by the poster. Measure B is designed to cure the inequity of having a small village pay for the paramedic lifesaving services for a large area. Without it, BBFPD will lose the paramedics needed to serve the visitors and residents of West County. That’s not good for anyone.

okieflats

OK you west county leftists, let's see you approve these money grabs. Save our school sounds like save our hospital.

Beach Goer

One conflict I have is that vacation rentals that pay TOT taxes from Occidental to Monte Rio and up to Ft Ross area don’t see a direct benefit to there respective fire districts. The funds collected for measure B state that its for West County first responders, but in reality it’s money given to the Windsor Fire District (now renamed Sonoma County) to support the ambulance in Guerneville and Bodega Bay and take over the BB fire department. First responders in the aforementioned volunteer fire departments don’t see a direct benefit to their own departments budgets. Yes, those 2 ambulance companies respond into their territories, but ambulances charge big bucks for those services to the patient or insurance company. And speaking of tourists, most tourists have health insurance that covers the bulk of ambulance rates. Tourists aren’t generally homeless or non revenue generating transports. And this tax will never go away, it’s forever!

stevegriffith

Dear Beach Goer,

i wanted to be sure about the issues you raise, about the various volunteer fire departments and financing and all, so checked with Chief Steve Herzberg of Bodega Bay Fire Protection District. I hope the info he provides below helps your understanding, as it did mine.

"First, Sonoma County Fire IS what used to be known as Russian River Fire. Same people, same ambulance, same service. The ambulances from the Russian River station and from Bodega Bay are first out for portions of Monte Rio. Russian River is the first out for Cazadero. Bodega Bay covers those areas when the River’s ambulance is out. We also cover up to Sea Ranch, and Occidental when needed. We do not receive a penny of the Parcel Taxes those areas charge.

Second, the Bodega Bay parcel taxpayers pay for the cost of readiness — they ensure that 24/7 there is a trained crew, ready to respond to an emergency. The cost of having full time, paid, Paramedics and an ambulance is substantial. We do not collect one penny of the parcel tax from the areas the writer mentions. The entire cost is paid by the taxpayers of Bodega Bay.

Finally, public provider ambulances do not make a profit. Those billed do not pay enough to ensure the service survives. And, neither they, nor the insurance companies pay the full bill.

Like may public ambulance providers, Bodega Bay receives around 32 cents for every 1 dollar billed.

The Bodega Bay Fire Protection District is 27 square miles; it serves 211 square miles, including those named by the poster. Measure B is designed to cure the inequity of having a small village pay for the paramedic lifesaving services for a large area. Without it, BBFPD will lose the paramedics needed to serve the visitors and residents of West County. That’s not good for anyone."

Steve Herzberg

Chief, Bodega Bay Fire Protection District

MKH

Measure B poses many problems for educational equity and parity as it seeks a public school funding source that is based on a resource (tourism) that is not available to all public school students in Sonoma County. There is a reason that other school districts do not fund their schools via sales tax; it might be illegal. You can imagine the radical funding disparity between places like Cupertino and 29 Palms if school funding was based on a sales tax tied to a particular industry. On a more local level, you might see it between West County and Santa Rosa if Measure B is enacted. Measure A is a straight parcel tax which has no legal issues. Measure B is highly unorthodox and poses many questions around equity as schools are meant to have funding parity in order to ensure a "level playing field" across racial, class and geographic lines. Our notions of a meritocracy via public education are founded on the idea that all public school students have access to similar funding. While the goals of Measure B - small class sizes, parental choice, shorter commute times, academic choice - are all worthwhile; they should be available to all students in Sonoma County not just the ones who live in West County. The BOS needs to go back to the drawing board to consider a sales tax, like Measure O, which would bring funding to all students. Right now, all students, parents and school administrators would love an $1,000,000 to help mitigate the impacts of the pandemic from needing money for PPE and testing to addressing learning loss. The pain and community stress of West County is not any different than any other district in Sonoma County. If West County parents and community members want to support their schools, they should start a PTA. $600 per year per student would bring in an equivalent amount that is projected by Measure B and would not pose any legal problems. $600 per year to keep the schools open, lessen commute time and achieve the community goals seems like a small amount. In addition, it is tax deductible. Measure B is an interesting model but to truly provide educational equity, it needs to be applied uniformly to all students and all schools, not just the ones in predominately white and rural West County. I see a lot of "Black Lives Matter" signs in West County. If you truly want to enact racial justice, take the model of Measure B and apply it Countywide so that all students have more school funding and access to small class sizes, more school staff, and academic choice.

stevegriffith

The writer has a point: another school tax...Ughh. Every time we turn around, more taxes and donations for schools. But, also at every turn, more rounds of school budget cuts. Ughh.

Like many Sonoma County schools, West County High School District suffers declining enrollment, and now pandemic recession. Unlike most school districts ,West County is significantly impacted by the conversion of family housing stock into vacation rentals.

Getting bold and creative with a tax on such vacation and other lodging is not perfect, but reasonable. And called for in a short timespan. The blunt alternative is losing El Molino High School. "...the one entity that unites everyone in West County." Renee Semik, Superintendent, Forestville USD.

Recurring ugly budget options don’t call for a bailout, true, but rather real structural change. The District acted positively by starting a formal study into the feasibility of small feeder school districts combining into one or two stronger wholes. To buy time for this study, community engagement, and steps to follow, they then placed Measure A on the ballot, only $48 per parcel per year for three years.

As parallel "bridge" funding during these forward steps, the District also supports Measure B, a 4% increase on room rates paid by visitors to our West County region. These funds stay in West County, not in the General Fund, split between bolstering the Bodega Bay and Sonoma County Fire Districts, and West County schools. Healthy schools and emergency services mean healthy communities attractive to visitors.

We owe it to all our students to take this reasonable best shot at keeping our three award-winning high schools., El Molino, Analy, and Laguna.

Smaller districts may now see their self-interest in joining together: not losing El Mo! Support B and A, as the writer says, in the interest of equity, "so that all students have more school funding ad access to small class sizes...and academic choice." Now is absolutely the right time for these two taxes.

Join me in voting Yes on A & B.

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