It is fair to say that the Napa Valley Register’s editorial board went into our recent meeting with proponents of Measure Z, the sales tax for parks and open space, with more than a little skepticism.
After all, there have been a series of tax measures on the ballot in recent years, from local roads funding to new school bonds, a regional parcel tax, and a bewildering array of state-level taxes and fees. That on top of increases in water and sewer rates across the valley and life is getting ever more expensive.
Was the time right, we wondered, for a new sales tax to fund what arguably could be seen as primarily an aesthetic question?
We came out of our meeting, however, convinced that the answer to that question is an emphatic yes.
The proposal on this November’s ballot would impose a quarter-cent sales tax county-wide to fund the acquisition of open space and maintain current and future parks and open space. It is expected to raise about $8 million per year for the 14-year life of the tax.
Since it was created by the voters in 2006, the Napa County Parks and Open Space District has operated on about $800,000 per year provided by the Board of Supervisors raised from the Transient Occupancy Tax, the 12 percent levy paid by hotel guests. In addition, it has managed to spend about three times that annually on operations and acquisitions through a combination of private gifts, government grants and operating income from its parks.
Almost nobody disagrees that the district has done an excellent job, including saving three state parks that were threatened with closure during the state budget crisis five years ago, turning them from money losers for Sacramento to self-sustaining assets for Napa County.
It is clear from talking with the staff of the district and the proponents of Measure Z, however, that the district has gone about as far as it can go with its existing funding. The cheapest available land acquisitions have already been made and the operations and maintenance of the parks and open lands have just about reached the limits of the district’s budget.
But there is much left to do, including the possible acquisition of major swaths of land in key watersheds and along largely wild mountain tops. If we want the district to do more than it does now, to be a catalyst for preserving our clean water and pristine lands, it will need a reliable form of funding for the future.
And not only is there a need – the district appears to have well-thought-out plans for spending that money, including a public oversight panel and regular audits.
Here are a few of the things that Measure Z will enable the district to do (but which would be nearly impossible without the added revenue):
— Acquisition of 400 remaining acres of the Kirkland Ranch along the Soscol Creek watershed. The district already owns much of the property, but the remaining space is already approved for vineyard development, which greatly boosts the cost per acre.
— Acquisition of the Livermore Ranch, around 15,000 acres on the flanks of Mount St. Helena, which would complete the preservation of the largest mountain in the region and improve access to the existing Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, which the district effectively operates today.
— Preservation of the 160-acre Girl Scout camp at the top of Mt. Veeder. The district proposes to buy the land, allowing the scouts and other groups to continue to use it, while preserving one of the county’s most impressive mountain tops in its near-natural state.
Other projects could include purchasing pockets of private land in the Lake Berryessa area that would improve access to existing public lands and would help protect the lake and nearby waterways from contamination from development or abandoned mines.
Sonoma County has had a similar sales-tax-based open space plan for more than a quarter century and today enjoys a magnificent collection of parks and open spaces. The county has preserved huge tracts of wild space, former logging forests, scenic hilltops, and historic ranchland from relentless development pressure. We think it is high time that Napa County have a similar program.
We are satisfied that the district is capable of managing the public’s money and has a solid plan for acting as an effective steward of the public’s lands.
We urge a yes vote on Measure Z.