Voters to decide on levy for park fees

A measure that would spruce up San Mateo County’s parks with money from raising the local sales tax to among the highest in the Bay Area will appear on the June ballot.

Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved putting the Parks for the Future measure on the ballot. With support from every corner of government, no formal opposition and leagues of volunteers ready to campaign, the one-eighth cent hike should be a shoo-in.

But things are hardly as easy as they seem. When the exact same proposal was on the 2006 ballot, polls revealed that 67 percent of voters supported it — enough for the two-thirds approval needed. The tax failed by more than 10 percentage points, and it was back to the drawing board for supporters.

“We had a very unfortunate reality check,” said Julia Bott, executive director of San Mateo County Parks and Recreation Foundation.

Two years has made a world of difference, she said. After the measure was showered with endorsements in 2006, supporters became complacent it would pass and moved on to other causes.

This year’s campaign is stronger, more focused and in it for the long haul, she said. Volunteers are already working to raise the $500,000 supporters estimate it will take to pass the tax.

Supervisor Jerry Hill was also optimistic about the tax’s chances. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s announcement last month that nine Bay Area state parks may temporarily shut due to the budget crisis makes the local parks tax absolutely necessary, he said.

“Where are people going to go? They’re not going to stop going to parks. They’re going to start going to our parks,” he said.

The measure would raise San Mateo’s sales tax from 8.25 percent to 8.375 percent, making it the highest in the Bay Area behind Alameda and San Francisco counties, respectively. The hike would secure more than $16 million per year to fund county and city parks, the Ladera and Highland Recreation districts and the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. It would also require parks departments to maintain existing funding to take advantage of new monies.

The tax would cost about $18 a year for the average resident, Bott said.

A long line of speakers — from city officials to environmentalists to law enforcement personnel — told supervisors they would support the task. Nobody spoke against the measure.

“I believe there’s a relationship between good public safety and good public parks,” former Sheriff Don Horsly told the board.

tbarak@examiner.com

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