Oct 1, 2018
By Richard Retecki and Carol Benfell
The wildfires of October 2017 destroyed more than homes, neighborhoods, and open space. They burned almost a fourth of the county’s parkland and damaged or destroyed parks in Santa Rosa as well.
Measure M on the November ballot will provide funds for aggressive action to reduce fire risk in parks in the unincorporated areas of the county and for improving and maintaining existing county and city parks.*
It’s what people said they wanted most, when polls and surveys were taken last year.
“People told us they want us to take good care of what we have,” said Melanie Parker, deputy director and natural resources director at Sonoma County Regional Parks. “That means real trails, real bathrooms, investing in natural resources, reducing fire risk, and repairing fish and wildlife habitat.”
Measure M would establish a 1/8 cent sales tax for ten years, which is the equivalent of 12 cents on a $100 purchase. The money would be dedicated for park repairs, maintenance and upgrades to county parks and parks in the county’s nine cities. It would also fund the amenities needed to open four new parks, currently closed to the public for lack of funds and staffing.
“We have a park system that’s growing, and community needs are growing. Measure M will give us the money to do all the things we know we should be doing and allow us to open up new parks as well,”~ Melanie Parker
Moreover, the tax-assured funding would allow the parks department to apply for millions of dollars in grants available through state and federal funding, grants they currently cannot apply for. “We can’t get state and federal grants without matching funds,” Parker said. “We can leverage the Measure M money to get millions of dollars to do larger projects.”
Measure M would raise approximately $11.5 million a year --$115 million over 10 years. One-third of that --$3.7 million --would go each year to the nine cities in Sonoma County, in proportion to their population.
The remaining two-thirds – $7.6 million –would go to Sonoma County Regional Parks, which manages the parks, trails and marinas in the unincorporated part of the county.
The measure also establishes a citizens’ oversight committee to review proposed projects, report to the public and make sure money isn’t wasted. “The oversight committee will make sure the money is spent on what we said we would spend it on,” said Jim Nantell, special projects director for Regional Parks.
More than half of that – 6,000 acres -- was added in the last five years. Park usage has grown as well, to 5 million visits a year, up nearly 40 percent since 2010. “People love to get out of their cars to walk and bike in the parks,” Parker said. While park acreage and attendance have increased substantially, the Regional Parks budget has not kept pace -- $18 million this year, compared to $17.1 million in 2010.
The sales tax money will be critical next year, when Regional Parks loses its temporary infusion of $1 million from Transient Occupancy Taxes (a tax on tourist lodging.) “We are falling behind even with the one-time money,” Parker said.
The spending plan outlined in “Measure M: Sonoma County Parks Improvement, Water Quality, and Fire Safety Measure” generally follows the priorities that county and city residents expressed in polls and surveys over the last two years. In those surveys, 80 percent of respondents said that maintaining existing parks and trails was a priority; 72 percent listed protecting wildlife and habitat and fisheries; and 62.9 percent sought protection of water quality.
Reducing fire risk is also a high priority because wildfires threaten all the values respondents said they held dear.
Regional Parks intends to increase their grazing program, letting sheep and goats clear the non-native, invasive shrubs and grass that are fast-burning fuel for wildfires. The animals are less expensive than mowing and can reach areas mowers can’t, Parker said. “The fires of October 2017 were a wakeup call,” Parker said. “We’ve been managing fuels, but it’s been a very barebones operation. We have to up our game.”
Repair & maintenance of existing facilities are also high on the list. Among other projects, Regional Parks wants to widen and improve the bike and pedestrian trails at Spring Lake Park in Santa Rosa; rehab the soccer field and basketball and tennis courts at Larson Park in Sonoma and Maxwell Farms Regional Park in the Sonoma Valley; expand and improve Helen Putnam Regional Park; and create fire breaks at Stillwater Cove Regional Park on the Sonoma coast.
The ballot measure would also pay to complete trails, including sections of a 13-mile trail from Santa Rosa through the Sonoma Valley, a long-awaited boardwalk in Bodega Bay so people can move through town without using narrow, winding Highway 1, and the spectacular 1.1 mile Kashia Reserve Coastal Trail.
New parks, with scenic views, creeks and oak woodlands, would be opened and accessible to the public for the first time: The historic 335-acre Carrington Ranch just north of Bodega Bay; the 1,100-acre Mark West Creek Park and Preserve northeast of Santa Rosa; the 1,285-acre Calabazas Open Space Preserve near Glen Ellen; and the 1,235-acre Wright Hill Ranch near the mouth of the Russian River south of Jenner.
Santa Rosa City Parks: https://srcity.org/1021/Find-a-Park
$11.5 million: amount of money the ballot measure would raise each year
9: number of cities that will receive money from the ballot measure
1/8 cent: increase in sales tax if the ballot measure passes
56: number of parks, open spaces, trails & beaches managed by Regional Parks
4: number of parks that will be opened if the ballot measure passes
150: miles of trail managed by Regional Parks
$3.8 million: money that would go each year to the nine cities
$40 million: in grants Regional Parks is eligible for if the measure passes
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