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A special series by Sarah Reith about the financial realities of Mendocino County governance.

Water, fire and libraries to ask for sales tax in November

Glass front doors with brick wall on one side, stucco on the other, and two sandwich boards saying "Vote Here" out front. Building has a label in large metal letters saying "County of Mendocino Administration Center."
Mendocino County Administration Building on voting day.

The Board of Supervisors worked out most of the details — except the amount — of a sales tax to fund water and fire, which they plan to present to the voters in November.

June 10, 2022 — By 7:00 on Wednesday night, the Board of Supervisors had agreed 4-1 to put a tax on the November ballot to fund county-wide fire and water needs.

The amount of the tax has not been decided yet, but the split will be 60% for fire and 40% for water. However, it would be a general tax, which typically goes straight into the general fund for no specified purpose and only requires a simple majority to pass. A special tax requires a two-thirds majority. County Counsel Christian Curtis gave the board some structural advice, saying that he could set up a general tax with an advisory body to give the board recommendations as to the best ways to use the funds. “I can’t guarantee the use of funds in any particular manner, or it will become a special tax,” he cautioned.

The advisory body the board discussed came out to eight representatives of diverse interests, including one tribal representative. There are ten tribal nations in Mendocino County.

The tax is likely to be one of two that come before the voters in November. The Citizens’ Committee for the Library Initiative has been campaigning since January to put a quarter-cent sales tax on the ballot, in part to pay for capital improvements like roof repairs. They wrote in a letter to the Board that they have already gathered over 4,000 signatures.

Supervisor Dan Gjerde read from a five-point memo he started circulating over the weekend, arguing against the water and fire tax. “Voters in every corner of Mendocino County will question why they are being asked to pay a water sales tax, when the water sales tax is originating from, and is the brainchild of, water interests in one corner of the county who pay virtually nothing for their water,” he declared. “Today we have a united Board of Supervisors that politically and financially supports the efforts of the Potter Valley Irrigation District, the Inland Water and Power Commission, and others who are attempting to retain reasonable water diversion rights from the Eel River to Potter Valley and to Lake Mendocino. But this support has limits. A debate at this time over an imperfect and unwelcome sales tax will trigger devastating political division within Mendocino County…and a Board-sponsored sales tax will lose at the ballot. Question: after the inevitable loss at the ballot, will state and federal funders want to give state and federal grants to support any Eel River diversion or related projects? I’m doubtful.”

He threatened to campaign against it if it was three-eighths of a cent, but left himself room to support it if it was a quarter cent and its advocates were “open and transparent.” He was dismayed that elected representatives in cities, where the majority of the tax will be collected, had not been consulted.

Janet Pauli, of the Potter Valley Irrigation District and chair of the Inland Water and Power Commission, argued in favor of the tax. She said the IWPC is now facing the decommissioning of the Potter Valley Project, and an opportunity for a long-awaited feasibility study of raising Coyote Valley Dam. She assured the board that the interests she represents are not asking the county to pay for their water. “We are now bound by two federal processes that are out of our control, but to which we must react and be engaged, or we will not have a voice in directing the future of our water supply reliability in the Russian River basin in Mendocino County,” she told the Board. “I’m here to speak to these two critically important and urgent funding needs. We have a budget for our funding needs for IWPC. I can’t address other drought-related water supply funding requirements in the county, or fire and emergency services funding needs. But it seems clear to me that between the droughts and fires we have recently experienced, we should be prioritizing fire and water funding needs… A request for funding by IWPC is not a forever tax. It is bridge funding to help us get the information we need to form a regional entity that will be able to self-fund a sustained revenue stream based on monetization of the water supply from the Potter Valley Project, used by the people who directly benefit from the water.”

But some speakers were skeptical about the level of planning that had gone into the measure on the part of the board. Michelle Bisson Savoy, president of the Friends of the Ukiah Valley Library, said the library has done a needs analysis, which she implied was missing from the newest tax proposal. “We got together quite an army of volunteers and went out and got a lot of petitions,” she said. “And what we heard, over and over again, is that as long as it doesn't raise the taxes, people will be okay with it…you don’t have your ducks all in a row here yet, as to what you’re going to do with the water and fire money.”

Some supporters of the water and fire tax argued that those needs are existential, while libraries are not. Detractors pointed out that a sales tax is regressive and hits poor people hard, while libraries offer an array of important free resources. A water lawyer quoted Abraham Lincoln and the Bible. Cannabis advocate Ron Edwards ranked the priorities, saying, “this is really the most important issue facing the county: fire and water. Yet the turnout is hard for you guys to really get a feel. When we were talking about expanding cannabis, you had two hundred speakers show up. And I don’t know what it will take to get that kind of buy-in and feedback from the general public. I’m just pleading with the public to pay attention to help you guys make a decision, because this is way more important than the cannabis issue.”

Union representative Patrick Hickey, who signed on to a letter asking the board not to compete with the library tax for votes, called for a middle way — while also pointing out the strong position of the libraries. Measure A, a 2011 library tax, won 75.66% of the vote. “We need to work together,” he stated. “We can’t be fighting each other, because if we fight each other, both initiatives are going to fail.” SEIU Local 1021 has not taken a position on the issue yet, because the Board has not offered its final proposal, but Hickey’s own proposal is to ask voters to approve a quarter cent sales tax that would be split between fire and water needs. “Friends of the Library will be submitting their signatures next week, and they have more than enough signatures to get it on the ballot,” he promised.

The board has four days to publish its agenda for the next meeting. The item is due at the assessor clerk recorder’s office by August 12.