Measure B still too close to call, but its chances of passing are slim

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, Sonoma West Times & News, March 3, 2021

Though the vote is too close to call, the fight between advocates of Measure B, a 4% hike in the west county lodging tax,  and its opponents in the hospitality industry will soon end.

As of 10:55 p.m. on March 2, 60.21% of voters supported the additional transient occupancy tax while 39.79% opposed the measure out of the 12,822 votes counted by now, according to the results posted by the Registrar of Voters Office.

Measure B needs a two-thirds majority of votes to pass from those residing in the boundaries of the West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD) and Bodega Bay Fire Protection District (BBFPD); about 66% of the voters participating in the election, Measure B’s full text said.

The Registrar of Voters Office will likely update the special election results by Friday, but most of the ballots have been counted for its two measures up for a vote, according to Deva Marie Proto, the county’s clerk-recorder-assessor-registrar of voters.

She estimated on Wednesday morning, March 3 that there are about 2,500 ballots by mail and 150 provisional ballots received that still need to be “scanned, signature-checked and extracted before they can be counted.”

Mathematically, the measure can still pass, depending on the votes on those ballots. If 2,138 of those ballots are yes votes, the measure will achieve 66%. In addition, more mail-in ballots may come in to the registrar’s office in the next three days.

If Measure B succeeds, half of the projected $2.7 million generated would go to sustaining west county school facilities and programs and half to sustaining west county paramedic emergency medical and rescue services, according to the measure’s full text.

The estimated funds raised would come from the added charge on overnight stays at hotels, motels, inns, vacation rentals and bed and breakfasts within the proposed taxation area of the combined unincorporated region spanning both WSCUHSD and BBFPD’s boundaries, the county counsel’s impartial analysis of the measure said.

West county visitors would pay a 16% total transient occupancy tax because Measure B’s proposed percent would tack onto an existing 12% general transient occupancy tax within all of unincorporated Sonoma County, said the county counsel’s impartial analysis.

Local figures of the hospitality industry rose in opposition of Measure B, but BBFPD, WSCUHSD and local hoteliers each have their backs against the wall economically.

Measure B’s full text said tourist impacts strain coastal emergency and rescue service capacity funded by a small taxpayer base and that student enrollment declines as families flee a housing crisis worsened by second home conversions into vacation rentals.

BBFPD’s financial struggles to consolidate with the Sonoma County Fire District may lead the coastal district to cut staff after 10 paramedics have already left the area in eight years and  WSCUHSD’s budget looks gnarly enough for trustees to consider closing the El Molino High School campus, according to Measure B’s full text.

Meanwhile, hoteliers said the arrival of a bed tax will tank business further in the wake of the pandemic.

Potential winners and losers of pending Measure B results speak out

BBFPD Assistant Fire Chief Steve Herzberg said on March 3 that the district is facing a crisis point and has called an emergency workshop for the upcoming Friday to figure out a path forward now that the potential need to lay off paramedics is closing in on the agency.

Lynda Hopkins, 5th District Supervisor and chair of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, said she is aware of BBFPD’s upcoming meeting.

“I am committed to doing whatever I can to prevent the need to move forward with layoffs, but I have limited authority as only one member of the board of supervisors so I certainly will have a conversation with our county administrator,” she said. “I will continue to look for other funding sources.”

As for west county education, Hopkins said, “I will always try to seek and support solutions, but I don’t have $2.7 million up my sleeve.”

Crista Luedtke, co-chair of the “Save Sonoma Jobs” campaign against Measure B, said she felt confident that the hospitality industry would prevail as of election night.

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

“I don’t want to be overly optimistic, but we’re very optimistic that things are looking in our favor,” she said, “and I think it just goes to show that we got enough information and educated enough people about this and on the merits of our campaigning with respect to just being able to share the story about how we didn’t have a seat at the table to really help create sustainable and more stable solutions to these funding measures.”

Luedtke said that after the measure hopefully fails, she thinks the hospitality industry and the campaign committee she helps lead can help find solutions to supporting emergency services. “There’s still work to be done,” she said.

Hopkins said west county voters usually turn out in great numbers, “and yet this is an off-election cycle, a special election with only two items on the ballot, and so the biggest question is how many ballots are left and which way will they swing?”

If Measure B falters, she said emergency services will be in a tough spot “because we have jobs on the line, we have services on the line and we don’t have any identified existing revenue streams that could be used, or we’ve looked at them already, right?”

Hopkins said that while there aren’t any plans to send another west county measure back to voters, the board of supervisors will consider a countywide sales tax for firefighting services later this year or in 2022, but it remains to be seen whether the emergency medical services will qualify for the prospective funding.

“So, we’ll sort of be back in the same place that I was four years ago, the last four years diligently looking for alternatives and they’re just very hard to come by,” she said, mentioning the hopes pinned on Measure G, a past unsuccessful fire sales tax, to bolster emergency services.

“Everybody says they value these services and I think that last year, during the wildfires, everyone was extremely grateful for, for instance, fire services. And yet when we had asked the voters for more money to fund that, they haven’t supported it,” Hopkins said.

So far, the entire west county special election has a voter turnout of 34.42% with all 111 precincts reporting in and about 12,853 ballots cast out of 37,339 registered voters, the county’s election night reporting page said.

This means the Registrar of Voters has received and counted all the polling place ballots, but the office will still need to wait three days to see if any vote by mail ballots come in postmarked on or before Election Day, “go through all the rosters to give all the in-person voters credit” and “do a manual tally of ballots to ensure the computer results are accurate,” said Deva Marie Proto, the county’s clerk-recorder-assessor-registrar of voters.

After initial results were posted around 8 p.m. on election night, the tally was updated again nearing 11 p.m. and no new updates have been posted since as of Wednesday morning, March 3. The incoming results are available at here: https://results.enr.clarityelections.com/CA/Sonoma/108411/web.274956/#/summary

“We’ll see where we are at the end of week. Since it’s small, we should get the majority of them done pretty quickly,” Proto said, adding the office has 30 days to certify the results but will do so before then.

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