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Supervisors consider proposing a tax to fund water and fire

A shallow river with green trees on both sides.
The Russian River in Ukiah

The Board of Supervisors discussed placing a tax on the November ballot, which is calculated to raise $7 million a year, for water projects and firefighters.

May 19, 2022 — The Board of Supervisors considered proposing a sales tax to fund firefighting efforts and water projects this week. The Board cannot impose a tax, but it can draft an ordinance and put it before the voters on a ballot. In this case, the tax initiative would appear on the November ballot, which could also feature a quarter-cent tax initiative to fund the libraries.

Measure B, the tax to fund mental healthcare facilities, is due to decrease from a half cent to an eighth of a cent this year. The Supervisors hope to make up the difference with the new tax, which Interim CEO Darcie Antle calculated would bring in about $7 million a year. “The Measure B tax that currently comes in on an average has been around $9 million a year,” she said. “If you start with the $9 million, the three-eighths is $7 million.”

Supervisor Dan Gjerde told his colleagues he is not the voter who needs to be persuaded, but he’s also not convinced the Board can sell it to a two-thirds majority of the electorate. “The voters are not going to rubber-stamp a tax that this Board of Supervisors puts on the ballot,” he cautioned. “I think we should approach this with some humility.” He reminded the Board of the referendum effort to collect signatures demanding that a new cannabis ordinance, Chapter 22.18, be rescinded. “It was likely to succeed at overturning that ordinance,” he recalled. The demand to rescind never made it to the ballot. Instead, the Supervisors, who had voted 4-1 with Supervisor John Haschak dissenting to pass the new ordinance, agreed to rescind it without a campaign fight. “I don’t think we have the credibility to go to the voters and say, of all the ways that you can spend your tax dollars, this is the way,” Gjerde continued. He said he thinks there are good arguments to be made for funding water and fire services, but that he believes successful tax initiatives come from the electorate, like the volunteer library supporters, who are busy gathering signatures at all the usual venues. “I think they’re the ones who are showing the way to do it,” he opined. “It’s not by rounding up three or five votes on the Board of Supervisors, because that is a path to nowhere.”

Ron Edwards, a cannabis advocate who keeps a close eye on the Board, suggested an argument. “Is this enough money?” he asked. “It seems like the need might be much greater…if you guys could dig into it deeply to find out exactly what the need would be, I think that would be a better sell for the public.”

Supervisor Glenn McGourty thought the tax could have a lasting impact, just as the future of one legacy project is at its most uncertain. “What we’re really going to need is to have the ability to study and be at the table, particularly with the Potter Valley Project,” he said. “What I’m hoping that we do is chart a path forward for the next hundred years. Because we’ve been living on about a hundred years of legacy decision-making in Mendocino County on water. And our time has literally run out. For instance, we’ve had all this wonderful free abandoned water from the Potter Valley Project, which has helped us fill Lake Mendocino and provided very inexpensive water for water users from here clear down to Marin.”

One voter was in full support of the proposal. John Reardon, who sits on the boards of the Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District, as well as the Inland Mendocino County Water and Power Commission, told the board he supports using some of the tax revenue to sustain water supply reliability. “Inland Water and Power is in the middle of a battle to try and secure water through the Potter Valley Project,” he noted.

Emily Tecchio spoke in support of the proposal, on behalf of the Mendocino County Fire Safe Council. “Something we have noted, as an organization, is that water for fire suppression is a huge need, and something that is pretty difficult to fund through other various mechanisms,” she told the Board. “So we hope that is considered as well.”

Volunteer firefighters were on hand to make a case for their allocation, if the voters approve the tax. Dave Latoof is Chief of the Mendocino Volunteer Fire Department and current president of the Mendocino County Fire Chiefs’ Association. “They know I’m here,” he announced. He expects that most of the voters in his fire district, which straddles the Fourth and Fifth supervisorial districts on the coast, would support a tax that helps fund firefighters. “Please consider a generous amount to fire services,” he urged the Board. “Fire is very popular right now in this county. I think you can ride on that popularity, along with the water…you can’t fight fire without water, but all the water in the world won’t do any good without firefighters.”

Gjerde cautioned that there are voters who will oppose the initiative, saying, “I probably have voted against a few taxes, but probably pretty rarely…when it takes a two-thirds, the person who votes no has twice the voting power as the person who votes yes.”

The Board agreed that Supervisor Ted Williams will work with staff to flesh out the particulars of allocating the tax to fire, while McGourty will take on the details about water. An initial draft of the item will return to the full board on June 8th.