Measure B forum weighs tourism jobs versus services and schools

By Zoë Strickland, Staff Writer, Sonoma West Times & News, February 8, 2021

Measure B Forum

From the League of Women Voters Forum on Measure B.

The Sonoma County League of Women Voters hosted a forum devoted to discussing the pros and cons of the two measures on the ballot for west county voters in March. The first, Measure A, asks voters to approve a $48 parcel tax for West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD) and the other, Measure B, asks voters to approve a 4% increase to west county’s transient occupancy tax for hotels and short-term rentals to help support west county schools and fire districts.

“This is an educational forum that will allow opposing sides of Measure A and (Measure) B to discuss their point of view with the goal of informing voters,” said Pamela Stevens, moderator of the event.

This article discusses the forum on Measure B. (To read about the forum on Measure A, click here.)

Measure B was put on the ballot to address the impact of tourism on west county, according to its ballot language, and asks voters to add 4% on to west county’s transient occupancy tax (TOT) for hotels and short-term rentals. Funds from the measure are expected to bring in approximately $2.7 million annually and, if approved, will be used to support sustainable paramedic emergency medical and rescue services by local fire agencies and to support west county schools and education.

“Ever since I was first sworn into office, I have consistently received concerns about the impacts of tourism. Most specifically on fire and emergency services, as well as impacts on our local families,” said Lynda Hopkins, District 5 Supervisor, who spoke as a private citizen in favor of the measure during the forum. “Folks struggle to afford to live in west county as a result of vacation rental pressure as well as second homes that have really driven up the cost of housing. As a result, we’ve seen a decline in school enrollment.”

Also speaking in favor of the measure was Mark Heine, a fire chief with the Sonoma County Fire Protection District, who said that Measure B is critical to maintaining emergency medical services in west county, which are currently “under siege” by the number of non-residents who visit west county.

According to Heine, 80% of the patients treated and transported by the Bodega Bay Fire District are non-residents. “That means that the residents and the taxpayers of the district are subsidizing the readiness and services that are provided,” he said, adding that funds from the measure will also help the consolidation of the Bodega Bay Fire District into the Sonoma County Fire District, which will in turn add more firefighters and paramedics on duty.

Eric Fraser, a bed and breakfast owner speaking against the measure, said that he’s failed to find a factual base for putting the measure on the ballot, calling the process to get it on the ballot rushed.

“Because of the volatility, TOT is a dangerous way to fund school districts and emergency services,” Fraser said.

Joe Bartolomei, owner of Forestville’s Farmhouse Inn, said that the measure is bad for Sonoma County.

“I know that an increase in our tourism tax will affect our recovery, it’s going to hurt local businesses and it’s ultimately going to cost us jobs,” he said, noting a presentation done by a UCLA economist during the county’s annual economic forecast that the county’s tourism industry is “in a state of crisis.”

“If Measure B passes we’ll have the highest TOT in the state and it will decrease visitation. Why does this matter? The impact on the pandemic is real and we can’t afford to have more businesses fail,” Bartolomei said. “Our community will suffer, small businesses will suffer, there’s no upside here.”

The first question presented asked how funds from Measure B would be used by the West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD), to which Hopkins clarified that funds from the measure aren’t earmarked for the high school district.

“Any school district within the confines of the TOT district is eligible to apply,” she said. “There’s two phases to the funding. There’s the first phase, for unification, where it’s really geared to support the school’s facilities and programs through the unification process, which is already underway with the Sonoma County Office of Education … the second phase, post-unification, opens up that funding to infants through elders in our community. This is really where we get to get creative and invest in our workforce. Skills training, career technical education, partnership with our trades, these are all opportunities that will be overseen by an educational advisory committee comprised of local residents.”

Fraser said that Hopkins wasn’t being truthful in her response, and that not all schools serving west county students will get funds from the tax. As an example, Fraser used the Shoreline Unified School District, which serves Bodega Bay and Tomales residents, but is a Marin County school district. Hopkins disputed Fraser’s claim, noting that the schools eligible for the funds are determined by the geographic boundary of the tax, which includes schools in Bodega Bay.

When asked about the distribution of tax funds compared to where the highest TOT amounts are generated, Hopkins said that TOT tax is generated fairly evenly throughout west county.

“We have a tremendous amount of transient occupancy tax generated in the Lower Russian River,” Hopkins said. “Mr. Bartolomei’s establishment in Forestville contributes heavily to transient occupancy tax in west county … as does Timber Cove (Resort), which is in the north coast and is also part of this district. It’s actually spread pretty evenly around the district when you look at those tourism concentration areas of the south coast, the north coast … and then the Lower Russian River coming all the way up to Forestville. That’s also the highest concentration of vacation rentals, which will also be paying into this, as well as Airbnb.”

“For all of us in the hospitality sector, our concern isn’t about where the dollars are going — we support schools and we support emergency services, of course we do — what we don’t support is this impacting our own recovery and ultimately potentially impacting the county greater than just not collecting the $2.7 million,” Bartolomei said in response.

A submitted question asked if the fire district is able to break down its call information further, parsing out which calls are related to people from out of the county visiting, versus from those who live in the county but outside of the fire district zip code or those who are at the coast for a day rather than staying overnight.

“I think one of the things that we’ve been hearing a lot is that 80% of the calls that Mr. Heine and his team are responding to are tourists. I think what needs to be clarified and what we’ve come to understand is really it means people that are outside of the Bodega Bay Fire District, which is pretty much the Bodega Bay District. Most of us here tonight would be classified as tourists,” Bartolomei said. “Data supports that 20 out of 21 visitors to the coast are day use visitors and 1 out of 20 are overnight visitors … taxing overnight visitors for emergency services isn’t really getting to the heart of who the biggest abusers are.”

Heine said that he doesn’t know the breakdown of how many calls are for people from other communities in Sonoma County compared to people who are staying in motels, hotels or other rentals out on the coast.

“I know that the impact is from non-taxpayers in both that fire district and the adjoining Sonoma County Fire District, which are the only two paramedic provider agencies that serve the coast. That impact is what is causing a significant problem, where 12 out of every 24 hours in a day, there are no paramedics on the west coast because they’re all transporting patients to hospitals,” Heine said.

Using data from Sonoma County Regional Parks, Hopkins said that more than two-thirds of west county’s day use visitors come from out of the county.

Measure B stipulates that schools can use measure funds following completion of west county education unification efforts.

“We wanted folks to not just be committed to staying as an island, but to actively be looking at ‘how can we create more sustainable, effective and efficient government services to the community’ by actually coming together. You wind up with less top-heavy bureaucracy — either few superintendents on the school side or fewer chiefs on the fire side — and then you’re actually really able to maintain staffing at the teacher or firefighter level,” Hopkins said when asked what “unification efforts” means, saying that the this could mean a letter from the school board saying that they’re willing to think about unification.

Fraser said that this requirement doesn’t make sense, since many school districts in west county have already started discussing unification.

Both Fraser and Bartolomei criticized the measure for being “bail out” funding for a school and fire system that hadn’t been efficiently run, noting that businesses don’t get similar funding when they’re run inefficiently.

“If we want to talk about subsidies, right now every single resident of the Bodega Bay Fire District is paying $524 per year for living there for fire services that are then subsidizing the tourism industry by responding to calls that are placed by visitors. To allocate it more fairly, the tourists need to pay their fair share,” Hopkins said.

If approved, west county’s TOT tax would rise to 16%. When asked if the county has done economic research on how the increased tax would impact tourism or demand, Hopkins said business has continued to increase since a 3% TOT tax was passed by voters four years ago.

In response, Fraser said that the county rushed getting Measure B on the ballot and therefore hasn’t spent time doing sufficient research on how it will impact the local tourism economy. Bartolomei insisted that having the highest TOT tax in the state will have a big impact on county tourism, which he said is already in competition with counties like Marin and Monterey.

“There’s no way that people can say that we’re anti-student or that we’re anti-fire protection,” Fraser said in his closing statement. “What we are is pro good business. This doesn’t make sense — this is a rushed process with many unintended consequences that are going to be costly down the line. Perhaps there’s some benefit for having TOT support fire protection districts, there’s precedent in that, but there’s no precedent for public school funding using TOT.”

“After fires, floods and the pandemic, most hospitality businesses in the fifth district are hanging on by a financial thread with several years of economic recovery ahead of us to return to pre-pandemic levels … A year ago I had almost 100 employees. Today I have four part-time employees and 25 furloughed employees,” Bartolomei said, adding that a tax increase will put already strained businesses in more direct competition with other counties.

“We are simply asking for the tourism industry to also pay its fair share, and pay for the impacts that it has on our small, rural communities. We need to make sure that we have the paramedics and ambulances that are there to respond when we, the locals, need them. They can’t be at a call dropping off a tourist in Santa Rosa and then we’re short-staffed in our unincorporated communities,” Hopkins said in her closing remarks. “And we need to invest in our younger generation, in our workforce. We struggle with homelessness, we struggle with different issues in the lower Russian River, and I really believe investing in education will help address those into the future.”

Heine said that he’s in a crisis state when thinking about emergency services in west county.

“This is the first time I can’t stand in front of my communities out there and tell them we can sustain that service much longer, so I look for root causes. I think one of the root causes is the need for those utilizing the readiness of those resources and the deployment of those resources to pay for those resources,” Heine said. “I think it’s critical, the passage of Measure B, for the support of medical service on the west coast.”

Watch the full forum on Measure B here.

This article was produced by Sonoma West Times & News, the hometown newspaper of Sebastopol and west county since 1889. See more news at sonomawest.com