November 18, 2019 — The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on November 12 to ask voters to approve a transient occupancy tax on private campgrounds, with an advisory measure directing that the revenue, estimated at one million dollars per year, go to fire agencies. If approved by voters in March, the tax would only apply to the first thirty days of a visit at the campground. Public campgrounds, which comprise about 30% of the camping facilities in the county, are exempt, by state law. Treasurer tax collector Shari Schapmire said that, when her office researched the issue two years ago, public campgrounds cost an average of $28 per night, while private campgrounds cost about $41 per night. She thinks it’s likely that for this reason, homeless or nearly homeless people who rely on campgrounds for shelter are probably using public campgrounds for the purpose.
David Roderick, who is a member of the Hopland fire protection district, told the board he was not speaking on behalf of the district when he shared some of his concerns. He says the tax will not be anywhere near enough to fund the actual public safety need, and worries that the public will get the impression that if they vote in the tax, they will have fixed the problem. Also, he pointed out, “The county has a poor track record on forecasting gross receipts. The cannabis program is a prime example of that.” Roderick had some suggestions, including hiring a county-wide fire chief, as Sonoma County has done. Supervisor Dan Gjerde invited Roderick to work with the board on crafting the ballot argument to inform voters of the scope of the measure — and the problem.
Chuck Greenberg, of the Albion Little River Fire Protection District, agreed that whatever revenue is generated won’t be enough, but “I’m concerned that we might let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” He pointed out that the measure would tax visitors, whose health emergencies are addressed by many volunteer fire departments, especially on the coast.
But Janet Carter, who has a campground in Fort Bragg, doesn’t think it’s a good idea to tax visitors. Many campers, she told the board, are low-income families with children and a tight budget. She believes that, “By not having that little dab of money to spend at souvenir shops...it hurts the town. There is no logging and fishing industry, so we have to rely on the tourists. So if you tax them out of town, that hurts more than just the campgrounds.”
The last time this tax was on the ballot, the revenue was just supposed to go into the general fund. The measure failed, narrowly. But supervisors are betting that this time around, the public will go for it.