Whether because of pure serendipity or just the rapidly changing funding landscape, this is a big year for local ballot measures. Seventeen have headed to voters.
Presidential years often make for longer ballots due to the promise of higher turnout. But this year’s total measures amount to more than the number of races in the last three major November elections combined. Not all of the races are particularly sexy, and some of them get deeper into the nitty-gritty details than others. Only one of them is countywide, and the rest cover regional areas. Here’s a look at this year’s most important measures:
Santa Cruz Unified School District
This measure promises to modernize school science labs, build more permanent classrooms and improve safety, while fixing deteriorated roofs and old infrastructure in Santa Cruz Unified’s secondary schools. To pay off a $140 million bond, taxpayers would be chipping in $29.50 per $100,000 of assessed value on their property tax bill. According to the district’s facility master plan, between $28 million and $33 million would go to each of the three high schools—Santa Cruz High, Harbor High and Soquel High. Supporters like former county Treasurer Fred Keeley, Councilmember Pamela Comstock and Business Leader George Ow, Jr. say the upgrades are critical.
Santa Cruz Unified School District
The little brother to Measure A, this bond measure aims to raise $68 million to repair the district’s elementary schools, and is promising similar improvements. Like any other school bond vote, Measure B—which has gotten wide-ranging support—needs 55 percent voter approval to pass. Each measure would establish a citizen oversight committee, two annual audits, and a report to the school board each year on any unspent funds. Public schools have increasingly relied upon locally funded budget solutions as California officials repeatedly chip away at education dollars. Like most local measures this year, Measure B has gotten no formal opposition, although a letter to the Santa Cruz Sentinel last month did bemoan the increased tax burden for property owners.
Soquel Union Elementary School District
With repairs needed for Soquel Union Elementary, Measure C aims to raise $42 million. It has the backing of Santa Cruz County Schools Superintendent Michael Watkins, Vice Mayor Stephanie Harlan, former Capitola Former Mayor Sam Storey and Sheriff Jim Hart. The district, which stretches from Santa Cruz Gardens Elementary to New Brighton Elementary, plans to improve leaky roofs, plumbing, heating and air conditioning. It also aims to install solar panels, build more classrooms and get up to date on safety and disability requirements with the new dough.
This transportation measure—both the most endorsed and most hotly contested local measure in recent history—has shaped into the year’s biggest race, with strong feelings on both sides.
The last time the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) put a measure with highway improvements on the ballot was 12 years ago, and it garnered just 43 percent support. That’s more than 20 percent shy of the two-thirds vote it needed to pass. Measure D is different, though, supporters boast, with former highway widening opponents like Santa Cruz City Councilmember Don Lane and John Leopold showing enthusiasm—as well as environmental groups like Ecology Action, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County and Bike Santa Cruz County. And the new measure is cheaper and more balanced—30 percent of the revenue would go to local road repair and 25 percent to highway merge lanes. The rest is slated for the coastal rail trail, transit for seniors and disabled people and railroad maintenance and analysis.
Activist Rick Longinotti says he wanted to see the highway taken out of the measure altogether, arguing that a close look at CalTrans’ environmental documents doesn’t prove the changes would reduce traffic. “The notion that this is doing something for people stuck in traffic is completely without basis,” says Longinotti, a leader in the Widening Won’t Work campaign to prevent Measure D from getting two-thirds approval. He notes that a recent poll found that voters strongly support reducing congestion, but not so much widening the highway.
The half-cent sales tax would replace a quarter-cent sales tax, amounting to a quarter-cent sales tax increase. “It’s frustrating for me to see the campaign against the measure pretend like 80 percent of the funding for all these other important things doesn’t matter,” says Lane, who also serves as RTC chair. “They’re so obsessed with the 25 percent going to the highway that they don’t see the other part.”
Santa Cruz County-cannabis
After Santa Cruz County voters approved a sales tax for dispensaries two years ago with 78 percent of voters in support, changes in state law have affected the industry regulators’ semantics. To cover the county’s bases, Measure E would clarify and amend definitions for “cannabis,” “cannabis business,” and “medical marijuana business.” The lone opposition has come from longtime county critic Michael Boyd, who didn’t like the original sales tax measure and worries that it prevents people from getting medicine. Supporters note that there are still resources for people to receive low-cost medication.
City of Santa Cruz-cannabis
Like Measure E, this measure clarifies the wording of previous voter-approved cannabis legislation, but for the city of Santa Cruz. Medical marijuana activist Boyd, who filed a lawsuit against the city and county about the 2014 tax measure, has asked voters to consider a “no” vote because he says the measure amounts to “discrimination” against the poor.
With transient occupancy taxes (TOT) in Santa Cruz and the county at 11 percent, city leaders in Watsonville don’t want to miss a piece of the pie. In Watsonville, TOT is currently 11 percent. A 1 percent increase in taxes paid by tourists may seem like a slam dunk, which probably explains why the measure did not garner an opposition statement—or even one of support, for that matter. It’s worth noting, though, that Capitola voters shot down a nearly identical measure two years ago, either because they didn’t think it was necessary or because the measure wasn’t clear enough about where the money would go. According to impartial analysis on Measure J from Watsonville Administrative Services Director Ezequiel Vega, the tax would continue funding “services such as public safety.”
Watsonville does not have its own cannabis tax, and it’s looking to get in on the local government trend. Like county and city rules, Watsonville’s Measure L calls for up to a 10 percent tax on gross receipts of pot sales. It also calls for up to a 2.5 percent tax on the receipts from the production of marijuana—less than half the city and county’s rates—and additionally a unique $20 tax per square foot of grows.
The pot tax measure above comes with this added advisory, called Measure M. It asks voters for their preferences for how portions of their cannabis tax cash be spent—on fire services, parks, community development, libraries, community services, law enforcement and crime prevention or nonprofit social and community services. The non-binding advisory would provide guidance to the Watsonville City Council.
Boulder Creek Fire Protection District
Deep in the San Lorenzo Valley, Measure N would establish a tax of $35 per parcel for 30 years to protect local fire and emergency medical services, including the acquisition of new fire and emergency response vehicles, as well as gear and equipment in the Boulder Creek Fire Protection District. As a parcel tax, it needs a two-thirds vote to pass.
Zayante Fire Protection District
Measure O would replace the Zayante Fire Protection District’s $38 parcel tax, in effect since 1992, with a new $68 one. The tax aims to ensure the financial survival of the district and support Monday through Friday staff to keep response times low. To sweeten the deal, supporters have noted that a bond from nearly 30 years ago for the fire station is expiring and will be coming off residents’ property tax bills next year.