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Sonoma County officials shaping pitch for early renewal of transportation sales tax in 2020

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma County’s transportation authority has taken another step toward asking voters in 2020 for early renewal of a sales tax that pays for regional road and transportation upgrades, hoping to guarantee infrastructure funding for decades to come.

A subcommittee for the countywide transportation entity’s 12-member board approved spending up to $75,000 on consulting services from Santa Rosa-based Muelrath Public Affairs and polling through EMC Research, headquartered in Oakland. The two firms will help shape the questions to be asked of likely voters starting next month, offering results this fall to the full board so they can decide whether to place a measure on the ballot in November 2020.

Board members hope the poll also offers insight into voters’ appetite for a quarter-cent tax versus a possible half-cent option, the type of projects the measure might fund and how long it should remain on the books. Measure M, the county’s current quarter-cent sales tax for transportation, was approved in November 2004 and is set to expire in April 2025.

“The whole goal is to reach out and actually know what the public’s interest is,” said Cotati Councilman Mark Landman, chairman of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. “It’s important when you undertake something like a tax measure to show clearly to the public the benefits that they’ll receive.”

The survey work comes as several other potential countywide ballot measures appear to be taking shape for the primary or general elections next year. Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board members are poised to vote later this fall on whether to seek an early renewal of the quarter-cent sales tax that supports operation of the commuter train system. Sonoma County also is exploring the possibility of proposing a pair of tax measures to bolster firefighting services and mental health care.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9928670-181/sonoma-county-officials-shaping-pitch

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SMART board laying groundwork for sales-tax renewal amid looming financial crisis

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The daunting financial challenges disclosed last week by the North Bay’s commuter rail system have only increased the urgency within SMART to convince voters to renew a sales tax that funds the 2-year-old train line and underpins its future.

SMART officials are beginning to craft the talking points for a campaign to persuade voters that, despite past rail agency missteps, they should extend the agency’s tax funding another two or three decades, allowing it to more readily refinance its mounting debt costs.

To be successful, members of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit board say, the campaign must show voters how the system has improved the quality of life across the region, beyond its 1.4 million riders to date, and enhanced the economies of the two counties it serves.

“I think it’s a reasonable ask,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a nine-year board member. “We’re asking to extend a sales tax in order to assure that we’re here and healthy for the next 30 years, and can continue to expand and be convenient for riders. That’s the message.”

To renew the tax, however, SMART also must overcome its faults and earn the trust of two-thirds of the voters in Sonoma and Marin counties. Revenues have fallen far short of initial projections, construction costs have doubled, and buildout of the rail line and parallel bike path is far behind the original schedule.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9881990-181/smart-board-laying-groundwork-for

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SMART says it faces multimillion-dollar deficits without sales-tax renewal

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The North Bay’s commuter rail system could face crippling multimillion-dollar deficits within three years if voters in Sonoma and Marin counties don’t pass a proposed sales-tax extension in March, SMART officials revealed for the first time Wednesday.

Starting in 2022, Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit would need to slash at least $9 million annually — about a seventh of its operating expenses — resulting in cuts to service and SMART’s workforce if the 12-member board opts not to seek early renewal of the tax next year, or if the extension is put to voters and they reject it, officials said.

The agency’s financial forecast showed operating expenses climbing from $58 million this fiscal year to about $63 million two years from now, with tax and fare revenues not expected to keep pace. The rise is driven mostly by escalating payments on debt accrued in SMART’s buildout, as well as rising labor, fuel and maintenance costs.

“We just need to call a spade a spade as we see it today,” Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, told the board. “Doing nothing is not an option and pretty bad for everybody. We’re being straightforward. We don’t want to mislead the members of the public. We want to tell them what the pains are, what the chokeholds are and what our options are.”

The newly unveiled forecast marked the first public acknowledgment by SMART officials that the 2-year-old line already faces a potentially deepening near-term shortfall in its budget. The projections did not account for the possibility of a recession, which would carve an even larger hole into the system’s budget. More than 70% of SMART’s spending on operations is supported by the quarter-cent sales tax.

It isn’t set to expire for another decade, but SMART officials say early renewal would allow them to restructure and reduce debt payments, which are now set to rise to $16 million next year and $18 million by 2022.

Without the tax renewal and financial adjustments it would support, SMART would be forced to cut commuter service in half, according to the agency’s finance chief, effectively sidelining 18 of the 36 train trips. Dozens of jobs could be also eliminated from the workforce of about 200, officials signaled.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9874597-181/smart-says-it-faces-multimillion

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SMART mulls early renewal of sales tax, reduction in fares for low-income riders

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The North Bay’s commuter rail service will consider a plan to reduce fares for low-income riders as part of a larger proposal from SMART staff to next year seek voter renewal of the 20-year sales tax measure that’s funded the system since 2009.

The moves come as Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, which launched service in August 2017, assesses its long-term financial picture with an eye on restructuring debt and accelerating its delayed full build-out.

It expects to complete the southern-most station in Larkspur by year’s end, expanding its operating line to 45 miles of the planned 70-mile corridor. But guaranteed future funding in the form of an earlier tax renewal could help the agency speed up its extension of service north to Healdsburg and Cloverdale, according to SMART staff.

“The reality is we’re a transit operation, and we need to plan ongoing operations, we need to plan expansions,” Erin McGrath, SMART’s chief financial officer told SMART’s 12-member board at its Wednesday meeting. “We can’t have ballot box uncertainty in our future. We can’t have our revenues stopping in 10 years.”

Voters in Marin and Sonoma counties together in 2008 passed the quarter-cent sales that represents SMART’s primary funding stream. Measure Q will sunset in 2029, and the agency’s staff is recommending pursuing its renewal as early as the 2020 general election, ensuring, if passed by a two-thirds majority, funding for another 20 years through 2049.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9464429-181/smart-mulls-early-renewal-of