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TOT Ballot Measure Moves Forward: Fire Tax Postponed

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Sonora, CA — The Tuolumne County Supervisors spent two hours this morning discussing a pair of potential local ballot measures during a special meeting.

On the issue of whether to place a fire parcel tax on the November ballot, there were concerns that the logistics could create confusion among voters. The $150 parcel tax for business and residential properties, and the $75 tax for unimproved properties, would not apply to those situated within a designated fire district. However, it would still be placed on the ballot for all county voters to decide. Complicating the issue further, is that individual fire districts are now looking at separate ballot measures that would only go before residents of their area, so people there could be voting on two fire taxes, one that would directly impact them, and another that doesn’t.

There were calls during the public comment period from the fire chiefs for the City of Sonora, Columbia, and Tuolumne, who requested that a more coordinated effort be done so that a single measure could be developed to help fund all fire districts in the county collectively.

County Counsel Sarah Carrillo noted that there are too many legal unknowns to put something of this nature on the ballot for November, as the deadline to push a measure forward is August 7. The board decided to instead develop a committee that will be made up of county officials, fire leaders, and legal counsel, to look into the best way to draft a single ballot measure. It would then go before voters in the spring during a special election. There is an increased cost to do a special election, an estimated $120,000, but the feeling was that the current effort was to “rushed” and unlikely to pass in November.

Regarding the Transient Occupancy Tax, the vote was 4-1 to put the matter before voters this coming November. If approved, it would increase the tax paid by visitors to hotels from the current 10-percent to 12-percent. It would also be extended to RV parks and campgrounds.

During the public comment period, Teri Marshall, who is a board member for Visit Tuolumne County, stated that there is “a lot of opposition” among the lodging industry, and a “mixed sentiment.” She also noted concerns about how the contract with Visit Tuolumne County, and the percentage paid to the organization, is regularly up for review and discussion.

Board Chair Sherri Brennan followed by raising a question, and stating a concern, about some early talks amongst the industry about developing a T-BID, or Tourism Business Improvement District, in which money could be placed on the bill of a hotel room that would go directly to a separate group, rather than the county. Currently Visit Tuolumne County receives 25-percent of the revenue from the TOT, but under a T-BID, theoretically, more money could go directly to them, instead of the county.

Supervisor Ryan Campbell countered that this is a completely separate issue, and would be a way down the road if anything like this eventually developed. He argued the TOT is a mechanism to collect revenue from visitors who use services.

Supervisor Karl Rodefer added that, while he dislikes taxes, the TOT increase should be a “no-brainer” for the voters, as it is only being paid by those that visit. Rodefer specially mentioned how search and rescue services stay busy throughout the year, and many times it is due to visitors who do not know the area well. He said many of those types of services are “draining the budget.” He says calls for law enforcement have been going up as more visitors come.

Supervisor Anaiah Kirk, who has been against the TOT increase, joked that he doesn’t take offense to Supervisor Rodefer calling it a “no-brainer. They got into a somewhat heated back and forth discussion after Kirk said, “Businesses have been decimated (during COVID-19), we don’t have money, and we’re talking about raising a tax. …what I’m getting from everyone (in the community) is, “who the hell wants to raise taxes right now.”

Kirk added that he is in support of a parcel tax directly for fire, and feels all of the energy should be placed on that issue instead.

The TOT issue required a 4/5 vote, and Campbell, Rodefer and Supervisor John Gray were vocally in support. Board Chair Sherri Brennan was more reluctant, noting that she is concerned that it will fail to gain community support if the lodging industry is not behind it. Hesitantly, she voted in favor, to give it the 4/5 majority needed. It still must be approved another time, during an upcoming meeting on August 4, with an additional public hearing, before going to the ballot.

Unlike the parcel tax, county officials noted that TOT tax increases must legally be done during a regular election (not a special election). If the county doesn’t place it on the November ballot, the next opportunity is in 2022.