By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County government is set to raise fees Tuesday for a wide range of services, including park use, law enforcement charges and planning and building permits.
Most of the hikes range from the 2.6 percent increase proposed for more than 250 residential and commercial development activities to the roughly 17 percent increase at regional parks, where day-use fees are set to go from $6 to $7.
County transit rates are set to rise by up to 5.8 percent for adult users and up to 12.5 percent for senior and disabled users, while rates for paratransit service are set to rise by up to 9.2 percent.
The county would increase fees for a handful of other services by 20 to 50 percent, add several new fees and eliminate a few others.
The proposals could raise more than $1.5 million across eight departments. They are meant to recover a larger share of the county’s expenses, including a projected rise in employee salary and benefit costs.
The hikes are also to make up for declining support from the county’s main pot of discretionary money, the general fund, which faces a $10.4 million shortfall in the next fiscal year.
The fees encompass everything from youth lifeguard training and septic system checks to fire safety inspections and site visits to proposed vineyard projects.
The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on the fees in a series of afternoon hearings.
The proposals have generated less controversy than annual fee hikes considered by supervisors in the past two years. Those votes were highlighted by opposition to rental hikes for veterans buildings — some as high as 200 percent — and increases in development-related fees, which saw a median hike of 16 percent last year.
Officials said those moves were needed to refresh outdated rate structures. Most increases this year are far less steep and are meant to cover annual cost increases for county government, they said.
“Most of them are just the cost of doing business from one year to the next,” said Chris Thomas, a deputy county administrator.
The costs include rising payroll and pension expenses. Though no county salary increases are called for in the coming 2012-2013 fiscal year, merit-driven pay raises and the end of unpaid furloughs for employees are both expected to boost payroll and pension costs.
The hikes are also to help soften the blow of budget cuts that have strained county services for more than three years now.
An additional $65,000 could flow to the county’s cash-strapped regional parks from the $1 hike in day-use fees, an increase that parks director Caryl Hart defended.
“We believe we’re not making it prohibitively expensive compared to other forms of entertainment,” she said, citing the cost of a trip to the movies or the general $6 toll for crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.
If approved, the $7 day-use fee would take effect May 1. It was already in place last summer for two regional parks, Spring Lake in Santa Rosa and Healdsburg Memorial Beach. No increase is planned in the annual parks membership, which was bumped up to $69 last year for general admittance.
About $511,000 of the additional fee-based revenue would come from increased charges for roughly 270 development-related activities, including building, code enforcement and engineering oversight.
About 250 of those fees would increase by 2.6 percent; 18 would go up by 4 percent to 50 percent.
Building industry representatives have again taken aim at the increases, which they argue impede recovery of their recession-wracked business.
“This just continues to have a crippling effect on development in the region,” said Doug Hilberman, chairman of the Construction Coalition, an advocacy arm of the North Coast Builders Exchange and the Building Industry Association of the Bay Area.
A separate concern of developers — a proposal to make builders cover county costs during an administrative appeal by opponents — is only expected to affect a “handful of projects” each year, said Pete Parkinson, the county planning director. Most large projects already cover those costs, he said.
Hikes in probation-related fees would account for $535,000 annually, though probation officials signaled they were likely to recover “considerably less” because they depend on the rates judges order and offenders’ ability to pay.
In addition to the increased public transit fees, transportation officials have proposed a $1 hike in airport parking — to a maximum of $12 per day for the short-term lot and $9 per day for the long-term lot — as well as increases in landing fees and rental rates for hangar rentals and terminal building space.
Other departments proposing to raise rates for public and intergovernmental services include the Sheriff’s Office, Fire and Emergency Services, Health Services and the Agricultural Commissioner’s office.
If approved, most new rates would take effect July 1.