July 23, 2008

Supervisors Back Grab Bag Tax Plan for Open Space, Fire, Farms and ‘Clean Water’

By Richard Halstead, The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif.

Jul. 23--A plan to put a quarter-cent sales tax on the November ballot to raise money for open space, fire prevention and farmland protection got the green light from three county supervisors Tuesday.

In an effort to attract voters, the tax plan also is billed as boosting "clean water," although it does not finance water projects.

The proposal received mixed support during a two-hour public hearing. Supporters of the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit district, which has already put a quarter-cent sales tax initiative on the Nov. 4 ballot, were particularly critical. They said a second sales tax initiative could doom both.

The supervisors who supported putting the tax measure on the ballot -- Judy Arnold, Susan Adams and Hal Brown -all said they were motivated by Marin's extreme vulnerability to wildland fire.

"If we don't take action now and a fire hits our county, you better believe our residents are going to be asking us why we didn't take steps," Adams said.

Thirty percent of the $200 million that would be raised by the 20-year tax is currently slated for fire protection. Half of the $200 million would be spent on open space acquisition and maintenance. The other 20 percent, or $40 million, would go to the Marin Agricultural Land Trust to fund agricultural conservation easements.

Supervisors Steve Kinsey and Charles McGlashan said they agree a tax measure is required to fund these needs. Both said it's the wrong time to approach voters.

"The right time to go is when

you will win," Kinsey said. "Right now, I'm not confident we can win this."

Kinsey said he was troubled by the opposition voiced during Tuesday's meeting. Those urging the county to wait included the North Bay Transportation Alliance, which backs the SMART measure; the League of Women Voters of Marin County; the Marin County Bicycle Coalition, and the Marin Horse Council. Several organizations complained that they had been excluded from the process of creating the tax measure and wondered whether projects funded by the tax would receive adequate environmental analysis.

"We need absolute consensus before moving forward," Kinsey said.

Chris Coursey, a spokesman for SMART, said, "What we worry about is that in a difficult economic time and on a ballot that will ask for a lot of financial contributions from all Californians, the presence of this measure in November will create a competition that will not only put the SMART measure at risk but also threaten the success of this important measure."

Former Marin Supervisor Cynthia Murray, chief executive of the North Bay Leadership Council, also urged the supervisors to wait. She expressed concern about its effect on the SMART measure and said too little of the money is allocated to fire prevention in any event.

League of Women Voters board member Judy Binsacca said her organization was puzzled by the recent decision to feature prominently the phrase "clean water" in the title of the tax expenditure plan, even though none of the tax money would be spent directly on water production or capture.

Department of Parks and Open Space director Sharon McNamee said the words were added because they "polled well" with potential voters. A poll of 400 likely Marin voters this month indicated 68 percent would vote for it. The measure would require two-thirds support to pass.

"I'm personally offended by this blatant attempt to manipulate the voters," said David Schonbrunn of San Rafael, an advocate for environmental solutions to transportation.

On July 29, supervisors will take the first of two votes on whether to put the tax measure on the ballot. The second and final vote must take place on Aug. 5. Supervisor Brown said Tuesday his vote could change depending on the final language of the initiative.

Contact Richard Halstead via e-mail at [email protected]


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