What do you think about Measure B? The TOT tax for schools (and other)

What do you think about Measure B, the new TOT tax that Supervisor Lynda Hopkins is pushing as a way to keep El Molino from closing. Yes, I know that’s not what the language of the ballot measure says – it’s for emergency services and education in west county – but as someone who’s seen this issue developing over the last several months, I feel it’s really about putting off the closure of El Molino.

Here’s Debbie Samloff Ramirez’s piece in the Gazette on the issue. (EDITED: I originally thought Debbie was the campaign manager for Measure B. Turns out she’s actually campaign manager for Measure A. Doh! Sorry for any confusion.)

Personally, I’m of two minds, and though I rarely miss the chance to vote more money for education, I’m torn about this one – I’m not sure it’s a fair mechanism (taxing tourists to pay for local education) and not sure a school operating at 50% capacity, El Molino’s situation, should stay open. (UPDATE: my thoughts on this latter point have evolved - I now think it should stay open.)

And the idea that we should tax west county inns, hotels and airbnbs at 16% (that’s 4% higher than the county TOT tax) seems punitive.

Yet I live in Forestville and can foresee the damage the closing of the school would do the town in general and property values (including mine).

What are your thoughts on the matter?

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I will probably vote for it, since it is a temporary thing (3 years?) , and maybe helpful in transitioning the WSCUHD to a single campus. I have watched the demographics and predicted demise of ElMo for years. It is sad, but I don’t think we can raise enough money in local taxes to support an half-empty campus, or to allow younger families to afford to live here. I would prefer to bite the bullet and make Analy into the best high school it can be, attracting students from all of the county. We should be able to learn from all the remote learning this year, and maybe there is a way to allow the ElMo campus to be partly used for distance learning while having it be converted to housing or other urgent needs. Rural students from all over the state have to figure out how to commute to their regional high school. I’m sure we can be smart about it in West County and offset the commuting costs with other techniques.

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That’s why I worry about this new tax - it’s a way to avoid biting the bullet. It’s supposed to give people more time to “talk about” and get used to the idea of closing El Molino. It will also put off the closing until a unification study can be completed that looks at the savings that might be achieved by combining the many tiny school districts into one. But a previous unification study found the savings would negligible. The financial hole WSCUHSD is in is just too deep. The new chief business officer indicated this fall that even if they closed El Molino now and moved everyone to Analy the district would be back in the red in, I think, three years. That’s the problem we need to look at solving. And it’s not clear to me that this three-year stop-gap measure would do that.

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Actually, the 2006 study did find significant cost savings to the tune of $1.5M. I am happy to get the full report to anyone who wishes to read it.

“Biting the bullet” now pulls the rug out from under all these rural students who have been having disruptions to their education on a regular basis since 2015. Closing a school without the data from the unification study that is currently underway is not the most responsible thing for our community to do to protect current students as well as the quality of public education in the West County for generations to come.

Measure A is a $48 / year parcel tax (which does not raise net tax bills because it replaces the expiring Measure K which was approved in 2012) is a small price to pay to make changes with a considered approach rather than due to a crisis response.

Keep in mind that senior citizens, people on SSI disability & owners of contiguous parcels can get waivers for the tax.

Measure B - the TOT solves an urgent need to provide sufficient EMS / Paramedic / Ambulance service at the coast. The Bodega Bay Fire Protection District cannot keep up with the demand for increased services due to tourism. Without the passage of Measure B, we will all be less safe at the coast as the district will need to consider even reduced staffing models from where they are currently. It makes perfect sense to tax tourists fairly to provide emergency readiness for these critical services.

Measure B also facilitates the consolidation of the BBFPD into Sonoma County Fire District. This makes perfect sense and is a great solution to modernizing and streamlining these agencies.

In a similar way, Measure B will provide short-term funding to assist our 11 school districts to consolidate (unify) subject to the feasibility study. One of the challenges in 2006 was that the cost to make the changes would not have been funded. Measure B provides assistance with these expenses, helping our community modernize and improve the delivery of educational programming and also saving taxpayers money in the long run.

After the funds from B are no longer needed to aid with unification, the funds will continue to be used ONLY in West County (including Bodega Bay & the areas served by Shoreline school district) for programs such as affordable child care, adult / senior education, career education, job training and more. They will not be tied to school districts.

Measure B is West County Funds for West County Future. Why wouldn’t we want this?

The opposition’s main point is that the 4% tax could hamper recovery and tourists would not come. This perspective is based in an unfounded fear. Every area that has put similar taxes into effect have seen no loss in occupancy or rate.

This has not been the case in West Marin or any other place that has done a similar increase. I have searched and found no evidence of this. The opposition campaign has offered no evidence of this.

In fact, when the TOT in Sonoma County increased from 9% to 12% January 1, 2017, the county experienced a year-over increase from 2016 in destination spending, industry earnings, and industry employment. Also, in 2017, Sonoma County lodging experienced a 5.7% increase in year-over Average Daily Rate.

  • this data comes from the 2018 Sonoma County Tourism Bureau annual report.

Also, Measure B is endorsed by eight labor unions. Labor unions tend not to support efforts that result in job loss. (Teamsters LOCAL 665, Operating Engineers Local Union 3, West Sonoma County Teachers’ Association, SEIU Local 1021, North Bay Labor Council, Sonoma County Professional Firefighters International, Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 551)

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Laura - I am not the manager for the B campaign. I am the manager for the A campaign. And yes, the CBO for the school district did point out that closing El Molino is not the silver bullet. It is just bailing water out of a sinking ship. We need to fix the structural deficits. This is why we need to use the data from the unification study in 18 months to re-design our public schools. Let’s pass the parcel tax to allow the two high schools to continue operating without program loss while the longer term solution is devised. This is not theoretical. It has already begun.

@Jitterbug @ Doh! I just fixed that error in the original post. So sorry. Argh.

Having moderated the Russian River Chamber debate on Measure A & B on Friday, I am still of two minds on Measure B. I really get why the district needs the money; I’m just not sure this is the way to get it.

As a citizen of Forestville who lives just a few blocks away from El Molino, I would like El Molino to stay open for many reasons, including the fact that its closure would damage my property values and property values from here to the coast. But I would be more comfortable with a proposal that asked citizens of west county to pay for the cost of keeping El Molino open. After all, they’re our kids (not the tourists’ kids) and our housing values at stake. I wonder what it would take per parcel (or maybe per sales tax percentage or both) to make El Molino viable? Does anyone know the answer to that?

@Jitterbug I’m even OK with a tourist tax on second homes or stand-alone (as opposed to shared) Airbnbs because I agree with the logic that says the transformation of homes into overnight rentals drives up prices and drives out young families. This kind of tax would also deprive Measure B opponents of their most organized and eloquent allies – the hoteliers.

The parcel tax really is the one that keeps the schools open and operating. The money from B is intended to help shift the operations into a more workable system. Declining enrollment is happening everywhere - it’s just accelerated in the Russian River area due to all the vacation rentals. The tourism mitigation funds from B will initially assist with the restructuring so that there is no longer a structural deficit.

The funds from B after they are not needed for unification are not specifically for schools. They are for our residents who tend to earn low wages and have seasonal work. It will bolster the fabric of our community, making it a vibrant (and safe - with the EMS funds) place that tourists want to continue to visit.

I can go into details about education funding but it will be very confusing. I will surely write more about specifics as the unification data comes out and it’s less hypothetical.

There absolutely are funding models though for rural schools with low enrollment. Jeanne Broome explained Basic Aid at the forum. Many rural districts are funded this way and it is not dependent on enrollment.

@Jitterbug I think the decline in housing prices is actually a pretty good argument in favor of both Measures A & B. Here is a 2017 paper on this effect.

RosburgIsaksonEckerandStrauss2017-BeyondStandardizedTestScores-TheImpactofaPublicSchoolClosureonHousePrices (1).pdf (608.5 KB)

There is a lot of support from Realtors for this reason.

Realtors is one group. Homeowners are a much larger group and I’m not sure they know about problem of falling property values when a school closes.

Regarding Measure A, The West County High School District has experience declining enrollment for over 10 years. This has resulted in reduced State funding which in turn has resulted in programs being chipped away year after year. We are now at the point where there are not enough students to support 3 high school campus. There are not enough students at any one location to provide the students with the best choice of programs. No amount of money will provide enough students at each of the 3 campuses to fill band classes, AP classes or field sports teams. The recent School Board townhall meetings ( as well as prior Unification studies and a Grand Jury report) have indicated better program choices at lower costs is possible by combining campuses. Cheaper and better. Win Win. It is not a choice anyone likes, it’s uncomfortable, it’s unpopular, it’s one that has been kicked down the road for years, but it’s the best and most common sense option. Check your property tax bill; there are 6 assessments to support WCHSD already.
Regarding Measure B, it points out 80% of the emergency services are to support tourist. It doesn’t point out that 95% of those tourists are day trippers that don’t stay overnight. So measure B which only targets the overnight guests are taxing the wrong folks.
Half of the funding for Measure B is to support the current high school structure of three campuses. In addition to the concerns mentioned about, Measure B states the money is only to be used by districts that are “…actively working towards regional unification…” It seems high likely WCHSD disqualified itself for this funding by delaying adoption of any plan, instead choice to study again. A couple comments by the proponents of the tax in the Feb 17 2021 PD article further validate this: Kellie Noe, leader of School Board stated “ passing either tax will provide some additional time for the school district board to make decisions about unifying or if necessary consolidation”. Doesn’t sound like actively working towards unification. Sup Hopkins mentions the revenue will be used to keep the budgets intact, while they wait the finding of the study to examine the potential merits of unifying. Again, doesn’t sound like actively working towards unification.

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After reviewing more information, and watching the Townsy debate video, I still feel conflicted. I am in favor of Measure A for sure, mostly because I am willing to spend another $150 personally over 3 years to help things out.

But I am also dismayed at the lack of long term planning about our high school situation. I still think the demographics are just against maintaining both El Mo and Analy and we’ve been watching this train come down the tracks for a while (I was president of the Analy Ed Foundation for a few years about 10 years ago, and this was the elephant in the room even back then). If WSCUHD doesn’t figure out a plan, I’m afraid that SCOE or the State will come in a figure out one FOR us, which will be purely financially based and probably not the best.
Regarding measure B, I am sad that it was not developed with further input from the businesses, although I don’t really see how they would ever support an increase in TOT. And I don’t see solutions to taxing non-overnight visitors (maybe restaurant fees that are waived for locals?) The ElMo high school senior on the debate provided me with a bit of hope about possibly funding ElMo as a low-population fixed budget (I don’t know the correct term she used), like some other small rural high schools in the area (St. Helena?)

But the time to vote is coming close, and my thinking is currently focused which vote (yes or no) might be WORSE for the future. I don’t like the TOT solution funding schools on principle. But I would hate to lose EMT services by throwing the “baby out with the bath water”. I am sure that raising rates to consumers of overnight stays will affect demand (and therefore jobs and small businesses), but I am really not sure how much (my guess is not too much). We are much more affected by fires, pandemics, road closures, etc…

Anyway, I currently think the upsides of passing both A and B are better than the downsides of them failing.

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I’m with you on the latter point – that the benefits of passing are better than the downsides of them failing. But I’ve changed my mind about the preservation of El Molino. I used to be willing to see it closed in the name of fiduciary responsibility, but of late I’ve come to appreciate the role it plays in larger community of west county. I can’t imagine there being no high school from Sebastopol to Fort Ross. That would be insane. I think the people who live in the El Molino district (including our family) need to come around to the idea of paying possibly hundreds of dollars a year to keep El Molino, if only in self defense of their property values.

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BillK, You can read the agendas from the county committee on reorganization here: SCOE: Resources: Administration: Business Services: School District Organization

The ongoing unification study will take 18 months. This is what Ms.Noe is referencing. It’s complicated, but truly the bottom line is to pass these measures to provide bridge funding to the schools to enable the long-term unification study and process to be carried out and also provide the critical funding needed by the Bodega Bay Fire Protection district to provide for 24/7 EMS / Paramedic / Ambulance readiness. Tourists need to pay their fair share for these services (through Measure B) so that they are safer as well as residents. I’ll bet most tourists (and maybe many locals) don’t even realize that if the ONE ambulance in Bodega bay is in use the closest mutual aid is possibly a half-hour away. That can be the time between life and death in many cases.

Jwheaton, the measure B education dollars are only earmarked for the school districts while the unification process is taking place. We have 11 separate districts here in West County and the hypothesis is that the study currently underway with the county office of education will show both benefits to educational programming & cost efficiencies to taxpayers to combine some or all of them. There will certainly be costs in making that shift so without Measure B, I do not know if we will be able to create the restructuring that we so need.

After the money is no longer needed for unification, the education dollars still remain in west county to be directed and used by west county residents for educational programming such as affordable child care, job training, adult education, senior programs, etc.

There is zero evidence that a TOT increase of this nature will hurt business or cause job loss. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that it will not. Eight labor unions endorse Measure B.

Thank you for supporting Measure A. It is very important to help our schools transition to what comes next and is already underway. Measure B, also, is critical to this process in the short-term & is very good for West County in the long run.

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I’m looking forward to voting against Measure A. It’s time we have a reckoning with our local schools. This year, with the Covid shutdowns, it’s been pretty nice in town with so much less school traffic. Many of the students that go to our west county schools are from out of the area, driven by their parents, back and forth while Sebastopol students are driven to Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa. We are not being asked to pay to educate “our” students, but rather Santa Rosa’s students. Also, as a Sebastopol resident who’s family has been deeply disappointed by Analy, I can’t stomach more money going toward that institution. Yeah, I get it. Education is a sacred cow and we are trained to wax poetically about our beloved school teachers, but in all honesty, school teachers are bottom level failed professionals who are propped up by their union to such an elevated level one is shamed out of criticizing them. I for one can count 2 “good” teachers I had in the entire 13 years of my education. Many were just okay, and most were absolutely terrible. I support the radical idea of de-funding institutionalized education. Free the kids and find a better way of educating our species.