Sonoma County supervisors launch political fight over lodging tax to support firefighters and schools

Faced with deep opposition from accommodation operators, but with the backing of school advocates and firefighters, Sonoma County supervisors on Monday proposed to voters to increase taxes on hotel beds in the County of Sonoma. west, launching what is likely to be a highly divisive political struggle over the allocation of diminished private dollars for strained public services in the region.

Tourism and accommodation officials say the proposed increase is too much of a blow to a business sector that has weathered floods, fires and a global pandemic that has cut thousands of hotel jobs and local restaurants and is expected to cut visitor spending statewide in half by the end of the year. Under the proposed higher accommodation tax of 16% – down from 12% – travelers will stray to other areas, business bookings will decline and some hotels may choose to fully roll their carpets, said people. industry representatives.

“For me, the timing is just awful,” said Joe Bartolomei, co-owner of The Farmhouse Inn in Forestville. “Tourism and travel have been greatly affected by COVID-19. We have just been wiped out.

But educators, firefighters and West County residents who support the measure and its champion Lynda Hopkins, their elected supervisor, see the move as a lifeline.

If two-thirds of West County voters agree in March, the tax would generate up to $ 2.7 million a year for public schools and several fire districts. This could help prevent the closure of Forestville high school, El Molino, and keep an ambulance permanently on the coast, where visitor traffic accounts for up to 80% of fires and emergency medical calls.

Supporters say the tax hike is tapping into a source of revenue outside the city to support the services residents and visitors need.

“What a great way to put money into the things we think are important in life straight from impactors! Said Gillian Hayes, a Forestville mother and lawyer for El Molino who operates vacation rentals in Guerneville that would be subject to the higher tax.

With interests well established on both sides, the struggle is likely to dominate West County politics over the next three months, pitting accommodation operators and tourism promoters at the heart of the local economy against supporters of schools and fire districts – a ragged division in cities where people wear many public hats and politics skews liberal and libertarian.

Hopkins, who spearheaded the proposal and helped craft last-minute changes to add school funding to the measure, said she didn’t see the political issue in such harsh terms. She touted the tax as a local solution to a local problem, including education funding shortfalls – a problem usually left to state or district officials.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think solving one problem for one community hurts another community,” Hopkins said.

But for Supervisory Board Chair Susan Gorin, a two-decade veteran in local government and the decisive vote Monday for a measure that required four-fifths approval, the decision was agonizing.

“I’m going to support it, but man, I hate to support this. I think that’s the wrong way to go,” said Gorin, who has chosen to give West County voters the final say. “And we should have taken more time to think about this.”

In addition to the West County public school districts, other recipients of the tax money would include Bodega Bay Fire Protection District and Sonoma County Fire Protection District, which all together serve a sprawling area of ​​Sevastopol and along the lower Russian River to the Sonoma Coast. .

The county’s foray into education funding, in particular, has alarmed some of the tax measure’s critics, who say it could deepen the province’s interest in local government.

“You are pitting school district against school district. You are pitting a district of firefighters against a district of firefighters. You are, really, opposing supervisory district versus supervisory district, ”said Supervisor David Rabbitt, the only board member to vote against the measure.

Gorin agreed, but ultimately voted in favor of the measure despite reservations. After last week, it was the second formal vote needed by the board to advance the tax to voters.

In her latest sales pitch Monday, Hopkins focused on the crucial services provided by firefighters and schools, and she argued that West County’s tourism-backed economy will thrive as long as its coast, its rivers and sequoias will be to visit.

“I recognize that (the proposal) is unique,” ​​Hopkins said. “But so is the tourism industry.”

Hopkins has long sought funding solutions for West County Fire Districts, which have looked to small tax increases to shore up funding and increase staffing levels. Still, district officials say they can’t cope with the massive influx of seasonal visitors to the area.

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