Treatyland

What’s the rush with west county hotel tax?

The Board of Supervisors is racing the clock to call a special election in March to raise lodging taxes in western Sonoma County.

Here’s our take: Call timeout.

Don’t rush this tax to a vote without sober consideration of the impact on the tourism trade, which is reeling from the coronavirus recession, or the potential consequences of an unprecedented commitment to add public schools to the county’s already stretched budget.

The proposal, sponsored by Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, would raise the tax on hotel rooms and vacation rentals from 12% to 16% across a wide swath of west county.

Tax revenue — an estimated $2.7 million annually — would be divided between west county school districts and the Bodega Bay and Sonoma County fire protection districts.

This proposal, which wasn’t on the Nov. 3 ballot, moved onto the fast track as the West County Union High School District discussed consolidation of Analy and El Molino high schools. The district is facing budget deficits exceeding $2 million a year, a result of declining enrollment.

No one wants to lose a local school. We get it.

But enrollment is down across Sonoma County, and the trend is likely to accelerate.

Consolidating the high schools would save $1.2 million a year, and the district may not be able to avoid that outcome — with or without the hotel tax. But other options, including combining the high school district with the 10 elementary school districts it serves, are under consideration.

In September, the Sonoma County Office of Education launched a feasibility study, which could take a year. Meanwhile, the school board placed a $48 parcel tax lasting three years on the March 3 ballot, which would provide help for immediate obligations while the consolidation study is completed.

Moreover, there’s no assurance that a hotel tax will keep both high schools open.

In fact, the school board opposed the hotel tax until the supervisors softened language that would have prohibited school closures in districts receiving a share of the revenue.

We have additional concerns about the tax proposal.

There is a nexus between a lodging tax and the fire districts, which provide emergency medical services. Up to 80% of calls in the coastal area are to assist visitors, according to the county.

As for taxing tourists to educate local children — well, it’s easier to persuade voters to tax someone else, especially when a two-thirds majority is required for approval.

But a transient occupancy tax, as it’s formally known, of 16% would be among the highest in the country, according to a 2019 survey by HVS, a hospitality industry group.

In California, the only higher taxes on lodging are 16.75% in San Francisco and 17% in Anaheim and Garden Grove, the cities nearest Disneyland.

West county hoteliers fear tourists will bypass them to stay elsewhere Sonoma County, where, with the exception of Healdsburg, rates will remain 12% or less.

Finally, if the supervisors start funding west county schools, other districts will surely seek lottery jackpots of their own. Supervisor Shirlee Zane practically invited them: “We’re responsible for everything else under the sun, but schools. So do I think we should have a say in schools? I do.”

The county should tread carefully.

This debate surfaced with people distracted by the presidential election, a frightening surge in coronavirus infections and the arrival of the holidays. It deserves more scrutiny and public input. Fortunately, March 3 is only the first of four election dates in 2021. Let’s slow down and get it right.

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