One-eighth cent parks tax goes to voters

Open space and environmental advocates celebrated Tuesday following a unanimous vote by the Board of Supervisors to place a one-eighth-cent parks sales tax before voters on the November ballot.

The tax, if approved by two-thirds of county voters, would raise an estimated $15 million a year for park maintenance, upgrades, staffing and other improvements.

The increase would cost taxpayers about $18 a year each for 25 years, and could be renewed by voters, said Julia Bott, of the San Mateo County Parks and Recreation Foundation.

“Woohoo!” Bott said. “This is the first time that we’ve gotten this far in our attempt to find dedicated funding for our community parks.”

Some area advocates have been fighting for such funding for 20 years, she said.

Legislation that would have created a half-cent sales tax for schools, parks and libraries in the county was twice vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson, once in 1996 and again in 1997.

The county would receive 42 percent ofthe funds, with 6 percent going to special parks districts — including the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, Highlands Recreation District and Ladera Recreation District — and the remainder divided among the county’s 20 cities.

Each city would receive a base payment, currently estimated at about $200,000 each, with most cities receiving additional funds based on population, officials said.

“Parks present an antidote to many of the negative things in our lives,” such as traffic congestion and crime, said open space advocate Lennie Roberts, of the Committee for Green Foothills.

The county parks department continues to feel the impact of a recent budget, operating almost 20 positions short, with just 53 full-time staff, of what Parks and Recreation Director Dave Holland called “ideal.”

“We experienced around a 35- to 40-percent budget cut over the last three to four years,” Holland said.

The lack of parks funding has meant staffing cuts, gardening and landscaping reductions, increased intervals between litter pickup and bathroom cleanings, and in some cases the closure of facilities that required repair for safety reasons.

An assessment by the county parks department of trails, facilities, campsites, roads and disabled access last year revealed that $90 million worth of improvements are needed in city, county and special district parks up and down the Peninsula.

With over 15,000 acres of parkland in San Mateo County, cities would be required to maintain their current level of parks funding, ensuring money from the eighth-of-a-cent tax would come in addition to, not in lieu of, existing money, Bott said.

If approved, the tax would be charged on top of a county half-cent sales tax for transportation on the books until 2034, and an ongoing half-cent sales tax for the San Mateo County Transit District.

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