UKIAH, 6/22/22 — The Mendocino County Board of Supervisors compromised on a proposed sales tax ballot measure, deciding that the tax would go towards fire prevention after concern that a combined fire and water safety sales tax would fail at the polls.
The amended proposal is a quarter-cent general sales tax that would go to fire districts and fire protection and prevention services in the county. The BOS reached an agreement on the contentious sales tax measure after extensive discussion in its bi-monthly meeting Tuesday.
It replaces a previous proposal of a three-eighth-cent sales tax for fire prevention and water retention.
“I think we all want to confront the challenges that we have in the county. At the same time we are in a very difficult economic situation within the county,” said 3rd District Supervisor John Haschak during the meeting. “I think people are feeling the pinch from inflation and all the other factors, and a regressive tax of three-eighths is not the way to go at this point.”
In the initial proposal, introduced by 2nd District Supervisor Maureen Mulheren, about 60% of the tax revenue would go toward fire safety and 40% to water retention.
But critics of the sales tax, including 4th District Supervisor Dan Gjerde and Haschak, argued against including a tax for water in the measure because they said it was unclear where the money would go.
Mulheren introduced the potential ballot measure as a general sales tax rather than a special tax, which would mean the funds could potentially be used for other purposes. Mulheren’s proposal included a resolution for transparency about how the collected tax would be used. But Gjerde worried that a general sales tax — which would require a two-thirds majority vote on the ballot to be implemented — may go to “ambiguous water projects” with no guarantee that the entire county would be served.
“This whole water tax is the most absurd proposal ever to the people of Mendocino County, and if it gets attached to a sales tax that goes on the ballot, it’s going down, and it deserves to go down in big defeat,” Gjerde said in the meeting.
Gjerde argued that the water tax was unnecessary, and that it was not a countywide issue, but rather an issue that local water purveyors such as the Potter Valley Irrigation District should address themselves. He argued that the sales tax is part of an effort by the Inland Water and Power Commission to pass a sales tax intended for inland water projects like Potter Valley so the purveyors would not have to charge a higher rate for their customers.
During the meeting Mulheren responded that she did not know why the tax was being made out to be a “battle” between inland and coastal communities. She included in her initial proposal the creation of an advisory board consisting of representatives from across the county to address water shortage issues.
Gjerde and Haschak also said their constituents were wary of a general sales tax and did not want to increase sales taxes.
During the meeting, Gjerde proposed a quarter-cent sales tax instead of a three-eighth cent to go solely to fire protection efforts. Among Gjerde’s concerns was that a countywide sales tax for libraries, also likely to be on the ballot, could fail because of voter concerns over increasing taxes. The quarter-cent library tax does not increase taxes, as it replaces a sunsetting tax measure.
Mulheren said a quarter-cent sales tax would not be enough to adequately address fire concerns, and she wanted the tax to include water because of the ongoing drought the county is facing.
“The sales tax math isn’t the most important part of this conversation, the most important part is how we can fund the fire and water resources our county desperately needs,” she said during Tuesday’s meeting..
In an attempt to unify the board, Chair Ted Williams urged Mulheren and Gjerde to compromise over the quarter-cent sales tax measure for fire protection and an agreement that the BOS would work to identify other funds for water projects.
“This means hard decision-making, meaning we’re going to cut some funds because water is important,” Williams said.
Mulheren and Supervisor Glenn McGourty, who also worked on the fire and water sales tax proposal, agreed to the compromise but urged the board to consider the threat to water that Mendocino County faces.
“I’m just afraid we’re going to be too late,” McGourty said during the meeting. “The emergency is now.”
The BOS will vote whether to place the quarter-cent fire sales tax on the November ballot at its July 12 meeting, at which it will also discuss fund reallocation for water projects.