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October 16, 2021
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League of Women Voters hosts panelists on West County Special Election

By: Brandon McCapes
February 19, 2021

Two ballot measures to be voted on by West County residents in an upcoming special election March 2 were the subject of discussion by panelists at a recent online forum live-streamed on YouTube and hosted by the Sonoma County League of Women Voters.

Moderator Pamela Stevens asked questions of groups of panelists selected to represent the proponents and opponents of each measures, both of which would levy or raise taxes by separate means to fund educational and other services in West Sonoma County.

Stevens posed questions submitted by either League of Women Voters members or audience members viewing the discussion, who were encouraged to email their questions in real time.

Measure A:

The purpose of Measure A, according to the text on the ballot viewable through the Sonoma County Elections website, is to provide funding to Analy, El Molino and Laguna High Schools, all three of which are administrated by the West Sonoma County Unified High School District.

If approved, the measure would allow the county to levy a $48 parcel tax on properties within that district, which would effectively replace an expiring parcel tax of the same amount. The new parcel tax would add to a continuing $79 parcel tax levied to fund the district, maintaining the total parcel taxes issued specifically for the high school district at $127.

The three high schools that make up the district have been facing decreased funding due to decreasing enrollment, and while plans for consolidation are likely, proponent of the measure Kellie Noe, a trustee for the district, said the $1,150,000 raised annually by the three-year parcel tax would give the district time to plan strategically while protecting students’ interests.

The measure’s funding would go towards funding art, technical and vocational programs, retaining teachers and staff and keeping class sizes small. 

According to Noe, the funds would give the district the time they need to ensure students are taken care of while they make long-term decisions.

“What this will do is give us the time to do strategic planning to determine the best long-term solution for students in our district,” said Noe. If the measure is not passed, consolidation of the three high schools could potentially begin as soon as the next school year.

Sukey Robb-Wilder, private citizen and property owner in the district, represented the opposition’s viewpoints. She said the proponents of Measure A have offered few details on how the money would be spent, and also argued that consolidation might be better for the students, who otherwise would have limited access to programs such as sports teams and AP classes due to low enrollment.

Measure B:

Measure B would raise transient occupancy taxes (TOT) by 4 percent in a large geographic area in West County, with the funding going towards public education, workforce training and emergency medical services in the area.

Among other uses, funds would go towards consolidating West County school and fire districts, which proponents argue would increase the governmental departments’ efficiency while decreasing bureaucratic costs. 

A local education advisory committee would be formed to oversee allocation of the funds and would consist of representatives from the coastal areas, lower Russian River and City of Sebastopol. In addition, the committee members would be selected from a variety of spheres, including parents, trustees, superintendents and business owners.

The tax revenue would also be used to offset tourism impact costs, particularly those resulting from providing emergency medical services to out-of-county residents in need of rescue.

Four panelists participated in the discussion, with Sonoma County Fire District Chief Mark Heine and Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins representing the affirmative side, and Farmhouse Inn operator Joe Bartolomei and Airbnb host Eric Fraser representing the opposing side.

Bartolomei made the case that the additional tax would be detrimental to an industry looking towards a four or five year recovery following the pandemic, and said that nowhere in California has TOT been used to fund education.

“Our concern isn’t where the money is going. We support schools. What we don’t support is the impact on our post-pandemic economic recovery,” Bartolomei said.

Any school or fire district within the geographic boundaries of the TOT district would be eligible to receive funding, so long as they submit a written intention to participate in consolidation efforts.

Heine said that 80 percent of emergency requests in the Bodega Bay Fire District come from people outside of the area, and the burden is such that for 12 hours each day, there are no paramedics on the Sonoma County coast because they are transporting patients. Bartolomei disputed this number, suggesting it included Sonoma County residents not from the Bodega Bay zip code.

Hopkins said she doubted the increased tax would affect travel decisions of well-off tourists to the area, and suggested a recent voter-approved three-percent increase in TOT did not affect business. She also said similar measures in Marin County have not affected the tourism industry.

Fraser frequently disputed Hopkins’ narrative and suggested the special election was inappropriate and rushed, as school and fire districts in Sonoma County are already undergoing consolidation.