Tuesday, June 28, 2022
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A Tax to Fund Mendocino County’s Fire Departments and Water Conservation Will Go Before Voters in November

Hopland Volunteer Fire Department training near Feliz Creek [Picture taken by Matt LaFever]

By 7:00 on Wednesday night, the Board of Supervisors had agreed 4-1 to put a tax on the November ballot to fund county-wide fire and water needs. 

The amount of the tax has not been decided yet, but the split will be 60% for fire and 40% for water. However, it would be a general tax, which typically goes straight into the general fund for no specified purpose and only requires a simple majority to pass. A special tax requires a two-thirds majority. County Counsel Christian Curtis gave the board some structural advice, saying that he could set up a general tax with an advisory body to give the board recommendations as to the best ways to use the funds. “I can’t guarantee the use of funds in any particular manner, or it will become a special tax,” he cautioned.

The advisory body the board discussed came out to eight representatives of diverse interests, including one tribal representative. There are ten tribal nations in Mendocino County.

The tax is likely to be one of two that come before the voters in November. The Citizens’ Committee for the Library Initiative has been campaigning since January to put a quarter-cent sales tax on the ballot, in part to pay for capital improvements like roof repairs. They wrote in a letter to the Board that they have already gathered over 4,000 signatures. 

Supervisor Dan Gjerde read from a five-point memo he started circulating over the weekend, arguing against the water and fire tax. “Voters in every corner of Mendocino County will question why they are being asked to pay a water sales tax, when the water sales tax is originating from, and is the brainchild of, water interests in one corner of the county who pay virtually nothing for their water,” he declared. “Today we have a united Board of Supervisors that politically and financially supports the efforts of the Potter Valley Irrigation District, the Inland Water and Power Commission, and others who are attempting to retain reasonable water diversion rights from the Eel River to Potter Valley and to Lake Mendocino. But this support has limits. A debate at this time over an imperfect and unwelcome sales tax will trigger devastating political division within Mendocino County…and a Board-sponsored sales tax will lose at the ballot. Question: after the inevitable loss at the ballot, will state and federal funders want to give state and federal grants to support any Eel River diversion or related projects? I’m doubtful.”

He threatened to campaign against it if it was three-eighths of a cent, but left himself room to support it if it was a quarter-cent and its advocates were “open and transparent.” He was dismayed that elected representatives in cities, where the majority of the tax will be collected, had not been consulted.

Janet Pauli, of the Potter Valley Irrigation District and chair of the Inland Water and Power Commission, argued in favor of the tax. She said the IWPC is now facing the decommissioning of the Potter Valley Project and an opportunity for a long-awaited feasibility study of raising Coyote Valley Dam. She assured the board that the interests she represents are not asking the county to pay for their water. “We are now bound by two federal processes that are out of our control, but to which we must react and be engaged, or we will not have a voice in directing the future of our water supply reliability in the Russian River basin in Mendocino County,” she told the Board. “I’m here to speak to these two critically important and urgent funding needs. We have a budget for our funding needs for IWPC. I can’t address other drought-related water supply funding requirements in the county, or fire and emergency services funding needs. But it seems clear to me  that between the droughts and fires we have recently experienced, we should be prioritizing fire and water funding needs… A request for funding by IWPC is not a forever tax. It is bridge funding to help us get the information we need to form a regional entity that will be able to self-fund a sustained revenue stream based on monetization of the water supply from the Potter Valley Project, used by the people who directly benefit from the water.”

But some speakers were skeptical about the level of planning that had gone into the measure on the part of the board. Michelle Bisson Savoy, president of the Friends of the Ukiah Valley Library, said the library has done a needs analysis, which she implied was missing from the newest tax proposal. “We got together quite an army of volunteers and went out and got a lot of petitions,” she said. “And what we heard, over and over again, is that as long as it doesn’t raise the taxes, people will be okay with it…you don’t have your ducks all in a row here yet, as to what you’re going to do with the water and fire money.”

Some supporters of the water and fire tax argued that those needs are existential, while libraries are not. Detractors pointed out that a sales tax is regressive and hits poor people hard, while libraries offer an array of important free resources. A water lawyer quoted Abraham Lincoln and the Bible. Cannabis advocate Ron Edwards ranked the priorities, saying, “this is really the most important issue facing the county: fire and water. Yet the turnout is hard for you guys to really get a feel. When we were talking about expanding cannabis, you had two hundred speakers show up. And I don’t know what it will take to get that kind of buy-in and feedback from the general public. I’m just pleading with the public to pay attention to help you guys make a decision, because this is way more important than the cannabis issue.”

Union representative Patrick Hickey, who signed on to a letter asking the board not to compete with the library tax for votes, called for a middle way — while also pointing out the strong position of the libraries. Measure A, a 2011 library tax, won 75.66% of the vote. “We need to work together,” he stated. “We can’t be fighting each other, because if we fight each other, both initiatives are going to fail.” SEIU Local 1021 has not taken a position on the issue yet, because the Board has not offered its final proposal, but Hickey’s own proposal is to ask voters to approve a quarter-cent sales tax that would be split between fire and water needs. “Friends of the Library will be submitting their signatures next week, and they have more than enough signatures to get it on the ballot,” he promised.

The board has four days to publish its agenda for the next meeting. The item is due at the assessor clerk recorder’s office by August 12.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. This article isn’t clear on which fire departments will benefit from the tax. City and /or volunteer fire departments? I would like to know how many city fire depts. and how many volunteer fire depts. are in Mendocino County.

  2. It’s always a vote to tax more never a vote to remove old taxes because old taxes put money into the coffers even though that money isn’t even needed anymore

  3. NO. They can’t even properly manage the money they tax us for now why in heavens name would we vote to be taxed even more? So they can give themselves bigger salaries? They make awful decisions against their own leaders advice leaving the most basic of public services at risk. I don’t know about anyone else, but I am sick of the government raping our pockets and we have no say. We are dismissed if we even try to voice an opinion. Vote NO to all tax measures. NO. You serve us, the tax payers. Use what you already have wisely. How dare you come to us for more!!!!

  4. Many of us already pay fire protection special district assessments and we have our own wells. This seems to be of benefit to special interests and will likely vanish into the General Fund for waste just like the funds for Measure B. We already pay enough taxes and fees and don’t see much benefit other than the Sheriff Dept.

    Roads are a disgrace, mentally ill not getting proper care, poorly maintained parks, and housing is already overpriced. Time to “say no” to more taxes. They seem to have money for fancy supervisor chambers, wasteful programs and that Tweaker Trail (Great “phantom” Redwood Trail… exactly WHERE are the redwoods? all cut down).

  5. Why is it so easy to add other taxes. Have we all forgotten why we wanted to separate from the British empire. Wasn’t that because of to many taxes. So our supervisors, and our senators and congressmen. This is there solution. Tax, tax, tax. There is other solutions. But they do the easy thing tax. And besides all this they want it to go into the general fund. So it can go for everything and anything

  6. Just imagine what that new reusable water bottle will cost in Willits if all these new taxes go thru. I for one have seen so much squandered with measure b and now a so called general fund inflation fire and water tax, is it to buy the county workers a fire extinguisher and a water bottle made of silver. I support letting the library continue on with the assessment of 2011 taxes not a 2022 increase. I personally think we need a 10% property tax assessment to anyone growing more that 6 marijuana plants and a special income tax on board of supervisors current and retired along with current and former CEO of 15% of county issued checks if living in our county and 25% if living outside it to be directly taken out by county staff. We live in an impoverished county and making sales tax 10 cents on the dollar will bring many to their knees leaving our county with broken windows syndrome and than less firefighters and more water because everyone will move on and probably burn down the place they left behind.

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Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith is a radio and print reporter working in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, focusing on local politics and environmental news.

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