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Petaluma voters to decide on parks tax

Published: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 at 5:29 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 at 5:29 p.m.

Petaluma voters will decide on Nov. 6 whether to tax property owners for the next 15 years to pay for new and improved parks and recreation facilities.

Supporters of Measure X say the $52-a-year parcel tax will provide enough funding over its term to renew Petaluma's aging facilities and attract new businesses, new residents and tourists to town, thus bringing in more sales tax and other revenue to boost the city's budget.

Opponents argue that voters shouldn't be asked to give more when the city has failed to curb other costs -- primarily ballooning public employee pensions -- and that the measure is misleading, incomplete and doesn't fulfill its financial promises.

Measure X, an initiative placed on the ballot by the community group Petaluma Friends of Recreation, would create an annual parcel tax on property owners for 15 years, which organizers say will raise $12 million. Single-family parcels, the most common, would be charged $52 a year while owners of housing complexes of more than 11 units would pay $500 a parcel. Senior citizens and others can seek exemptions.

The measure would fund improvements to a range of recreational facilities, from walking trails to the community pool to athletic fields at local parks. The tax would need a two-thirds majority to pass because proceeds are restricted to a specific purpose.

Supporters say the tax is crucial because the city hasn't prioritized recreation facilities for years, letting the field conditions worsen and facilities deteriorate.

"There is no Plan B," said supporter Carol Eber. "If this doesn't happen, nothing is going to happen. The council is not going to do anything because they're never done anything before and they're not awash in money to do anything now."

The Sonoma County Taxpayers Association has opposed the measure.

"The city of Petaluma really hasn't done enough with employee pensions to come to citizens to ask for more," said Dan Drummond, the group's executive director who lives in Petaluma.

Pensions are paid through the city's general fund while Measure X funds would go into a special parks fund and couldn't be used for pensions or any other purpose.

Still, the city has funneled ever more millions toward generous pensions while cutting budgets for parks, he said, setting up a philosophical opposition to the measure: "Until you get those costs under control, don't come to voters."

The single largest recipient of the tax revenue would East Washington Park, which would receive $6.1 million. A planned 25-acre complex on city-owned land would feature three all-weather fields for soccer, football, baseball and lacrosse. The city has paid for the project design, but funding stalled as the city's budget shrank in the past several years.

Other projects include:

$2.1 million to expand Prince Park for all-ages activities.

$1.3 million for the Petaluma Community Centers, including repair of the roof.

$750,000 to create accessible playgrounds, resurface tennis courts and renovate park facilities.

$500,000 for renovation of the David Yearsley River Heritage Center.

$500,000 for continued renovation of the Polly Klaas Performing Arts Center.

$350,000 for resurfacing trails and adding new trails for hiking, running and biking.

$300,000 to renovate the swim center.

Eber acknowledged that two-thirds support is difficult, particularly in tough economic times and with a ballot full of other state tax measures. But she said supporters have spent three years gathering input and believe they've put together a palatable measure with projects that serve all ages and recreational activities.

"Can you imagine if we had really nice facility here, what it would mean to this community?" she said. "We can attract more business because it's a nice place for employees to live. It brings in tourism because people can have swim meets, soccer tournaments, lacrosse tournaments, which we can't have here now. There is a lot of economic benefit to it."

Drummond also argues that long-term funding for maintenance isn't specified in the ballot language and that it won't raise enough money to fully fund all the projects it envisions.

Supporters said the funding plan calls for leveraging the tax revenues by selling bonds that will help pay for long-term maintenance. The committee also chose projects that already had some funding.

The measure requires the funding be overseen by a five-member committee appointed by the Parks and Recreation Committee, not the City Council. An annual audit by the city finance chief would also assure the money is being spent how voters intended, Eber said.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com

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