“Nothing is certain except death and taxes,” is an often-used quote originating with Benjamin Franklin. In 1789, Benny penned this famous phrase in a letter to his friend, Jean-Baptiste Leroy, a French scientist. In the lengthy, handwritten letter the referenced sentence reads, “Our new Constitution is now established, everything seems to promise it will be durable; but, in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” Lately, it seems the amount of taxes collected and how those taxes are being used continues to be a source of frustration and confusion for our members.
We pay a variety of taxes from sales tax to gas tax, but the tax burden I am focusing on in this editorial is property taxes. Even though there are some property tax breaks for agriculturalists, given the vast amount of land within our county that is used for farming, ranching, and ag processing; we contribute a fair share to the local coffers. Sadly, the considerations given to working lands in property tax assessments continue to be pulled back and are a constant target for folks trying to find more money for all levels of government.
According to the FY 2020-21 Adopted County of Sonoma Budget, over 68% of the $373 million General Fund General Purpose Revenues comes from property taxes. Almost $254 million is collected every year in local property taxes to support the services provided by Sonoma County to its residents. Keep in mind, in addition to the state, each city or township also gets a portion of the property taxes paid, so that quarter of a billion dollars received by Sonoma County is only a portion of the property taxes paid annually.
At their April meeting, the Sonoma County Farm Bureau (SCFB) Board had a conversation with the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District (BBFPD) about their funding shortfall. As you may recall, failed Measure B, which was on the March ballot, would have provided the district funding for their department. SCFB opposed the measure that would have increased the existing hotel tax by 4%. The Farm Bureau’s opposition did not question the need for ample funding for our fire districts, but instead was in support of responsible government and the need for the County of Sonoma to live within its means and to wisely allocate public funds. The conversation with the BBFPD was telling, and although our Board rarely takes a stance in support of or opposed to a local district, the SCFB unanimously approved the BBFPD Board’s request to support their campaign to get general funds allocated to the district from the Board of Supervisors.
All Sonoma County fire districts are crucial to the safety of our residents and visitors, but the complexity of the coastline, the characteristics of Highway 1, and the 4 to 6 million tourists that our Bodega coast hosts annually makes the BBFPD’s role in public safety important to everyone in our region. Fire chiefs from other districts even acknowledge that the severity of calls, cliff rescue skills, and the life support responsibilities of this district makes them somewhat unique in the fire safety system.
Why the opening conversation about property taxes? Because the property taxes we pay feeds the belly of Sonoma County’s general fund, and that general fund in turn should be prioritizing the safety of millions of people, locals or not.
The numbers presented to us from the BBFPD representatives are sobering. $10 million in property taxes are collected from landowners in the BBFPD District, but only $310,000 is returned to them. Somewhere around $3 million in hotel tax is earned from the fire district hotel establishments, but zero of those funds is given back to the area’s emergency services effort. Further, a good percentage of the lands along the coastline are public property, or under conservation easement, and those hundreds, if not thousands, of acres are exempt from property tax.
The fire district’s main source of funding is a voter-approved, lofty parcel tax of $524. Dan Drummond, Executive Director of the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association in an April Press Democrat editorial titled “Close to Home” heralded the Bodega Bay residents for “doing the heavy lifting” and lambasted the Board of Supervisors for ignoring the problem. This isn’t a local problem, this isn’t the “Coast’s” problem – it is a countywide problem that needs to be fixed.
Several years ago, the local fire districts did a remarkable thing – they developed a consolidation strategy to provide more consistency, pay equity, and financial efficiency within our county’s fire safety network. That plan directed the BBFPD to fold into a newly developed, LAFCO approved district named the Sonoma County Fire District. LAFCO had a catch in their approval. Before the Bodega Bay district could be folded into this new consolidated fire district, the BBFPD’s finances needed to be stabilized and debt needed to be reduced. That never happened (it would have been on the Board of Supervisors to solve) and the coastal fire district was not allowed to join the Sonoma County Fire District.
With no stable future and insufficient funding, the Bodega Bay Fire Department is having difficulty recruiting and retaining fire professionals. They are putting their own lives at risk to save others by working long shifts and rolling out to calls with only two or three emergency personnel in tow. During our meeting, the firefighters and paramedics were asked why they didn’t just refuse to respond to calls – that maybe that would get the public response needed to get officials to listen. With sincerity, the district representatives responded that they chose the emergency services profession to save lives and they could not turn their back on an injured child, or a neighbor suffering from a heart attack. It was chilling.
In the big scheme of things, the BBFPD’s request of the Board of Supervisors is to allocate approximately $3.1 million annually to their district to provide fire and paramedic services to the Bodega Bay folks and other nearby communities. This would allow them to join with the other fire departments in the Sonoma County Fire District, fulfill their commitment to the community they serve, and keep all of us who enjoy our pacific coastline safe. With the PG&E settlement windfall, the federal government funding for COVID-19 relief, and the generous amount of property taxes guaranteed annually; this request does not seem to be too much of an ask or burden on our county checkbook. Money seems readily available to purchase hotels for the unhoused or hire consultants to prepare reports that are rarely used.
I am confused as to why our Sonoma County leaders look to increase taxes to cover shortfalls for fundamental responsibilities of our local government. Shouldn’t the safety and wellbeing of over 6 million residents and visitors be prioritized over new funding requests?
Some suggest that the hesitancy on the part of these decision-makers is the fear of setting a precedence. Interesting since, as mentioned, fire officials from other districts support the request. Maybe a precedent needs to be established that dictates that our 500,000+ Sonoma County residents receive the basic fire and emergency services constitutionally due to them.