Board drops water portion of contentious water and fire tax
The Board of Supervisors discarded a plan to propose a three-eighths of a cent tax for fire and water projects, voting instead to present a quarter-cent fire tax to voters in November.
June 22, 2022 — The Board of Supervisors took a drastic change of course on a proposed water and fire tax at a meeting that erupted once in the morning and then dragged on until after 6:30 pm. The proposal at the beginning of the day was for a three-eighths of a cent sales tax, with 40% going to fund water resiliency projects and 60% going to fund fire services. The tax was projected to generate $7 million a year.
Supervisor Maureen Mulheren met with the fire districts board and further honed the fire portion, so that 40% of the projected $4.2 million a year for fire services would be distributed equally among the districts. The remainder would be allocated among them using a formula modeled after the state’s distribution of funds generated by Prop 172.
Her formula for allocating the water portion of the tax is now moot, since supervisors discarded the plan to include water projects.
Supervisor Dan Gjerde vigorously opposed the water tax, calling it “‘ridiculous and offensive.” During the discussion to approve the county budget, which appeared on the consent calendar, he objected to how the Inland Water and Power Commission was using the money it receives from the county. The county is one of five dues-paying public entities that are members of the Commission, which exists in part to protect the Potter Valley diversion. Gjerde spoke about the records from the Commission meetings, which reflected polling and research expenses, “testing public support for a parcel tax to finance what Inland Water’s minutes, throughout 2021 and 2022 have repeatedly called the PVP, or Potter Valley Project ballot measure,” he reported. He added that the cost of polling services to a firm called Godbe Research was estimated at between $28,000-$31,000, depending on how long the survey took. A scope of work describing a two-phased approach lays out the cost of feasibility studies, strategy, and education and outreach by two additional political strategy firms associated with the Godbe Research Team, TBWBH and NBS. The total costs for Phase I were estimated at $76,450, with a Phase II fee of $45,000, plus three informational mailings priced at $43,491, and optional digital services at $10,000. “So my question is, what is the total amount that Inland Water has paid, or will pay?” to the three firms, Gjerde asked. “These are our tax dollars, so we deserve to know.”
County Counsel Christian Curtis said he always advises caution when it comes to political activity on the part of publicly funded bodies. “There is a prohibition, not just on county funds, but on any public funds, for any sort of campaign purposes,” he said. “I don’t know that that prohibits any sort of polling, where what you are essentially doing is research to determine in advance whether or not the public entity should even invest the resources to go ahead and prepare an ordinance and submit it to the voters. This is an area I generally advise caution…there is an exception to the rule regarding campaign activity that allows a public agency to put out purely informational items that do not advocate for or against on a matter that may be submitted to the voters.”
Supervisor Glenn McGourty said legal fees make up the bulk of the Commission’s expenses. “If you look at what IWPC is spending their money on, it’s mostly legal assistance from Scott Schapiro, who is our legal counsel, trying to negotiate the purchase of the Potter Valley Project from PG&E,” he said.
Gjerde insisted that the Potter Valley Irrigation District and the Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District, which are also members of the Commission, have a valuable commodity for sale. “Those two entities by themselves could produce well over a million dollars a year,” he said. “Problem solved. A million dollars a year. Just those two boards. Take action. Nobody’s stopping them. But instead, nope. They want to ask everybody in Mendocino County to bail them out, because they don’t want their own customers to pay the going rate.”
McGourty said a regional entity of Russian River water users is beginning to coalesce around some fundamental principles. “Primarily, the use of the money is to negotiate the water right transfer from PG&E to the community of the Upper Russian River watershed between Potter Valley to Healdsburg,” he said. “That’s really what this is about. Eventually, the agriculture people will pay a reasonable amount of money for water. It won’t be cheap, as you imply now, but it’s going to take some time to get that together…it costs to be there. It costs like a million dollars to participate in the discussions, in legal fees. And it’s extremely important.”
Paul Moreno, a spokesman for PG&E, wrote in an email on Tuesday afternoon that “PG&E is not in negotiations about water rights associated with (the) Potter Valley Project and has not been approached about any such negotiations.”
The Ukiah Daily Journal and the Mendocino County Observer have come out against the tax, but fire chiefs called in from around the county to express their approval. Angela DeWitt, the Battalion Chief for the Anderson Valley Fire District, said her district is 356 square miles, “larger counting the response area.” With equipment maintenance and turnouts for firefighters, plus working with the county’s Prescribed Burn Association, she said her district would be grateful for any additional funds.
But other advocates worried that the three-eighths of a cent would be a detriment to another proposed tax. Michelle Bisson Savoy, President of the Ukiah Friends of the Library, asked the board to reduce its proposal to a quarter cent. A citizens’ committee has gathered over 4,200 signatures for a library tax initiative that would extend the one-eighth sales tax from Measure A, and add another one-eighth of a cent. Measure A, which passed with 75% of the vote in 2011, is set to expire in 2027, but the new proposal would make it and the additional one-eighth a permanent tax. Earlier this month, the Friends sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors, asking them not to compete with the library initiative by crowding the November ballot with taxes.
But it was Gjerde’s willingness to campaign against the Board’s proposal, and the lingering question about whether the Commission’s research expenses constituted political activity or not, that appeared key to the board’s decision to discard the water portion of the proposal.
Supervisors asked county counsel to come back with an ordinance proposing a quarter cent sales tax for fire services only, using Mulheren’s allocation formula for 90% of the funds among the fire districts The remaining 10% would be used for fire prevention projects. It would be a general tax with an advisory measure, which would not be legally binding, and would only require a simple majority to pass. The tax would expire after ten years.
Mulheren and Gjerde agreed to work together to identify money in the general fund that could be used for water projects.