By KERRY BENEFIELD
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Santa Rosa Junior College trustees decided Tuesday against putting a parcel tax before voters in November after board members expressed unease with the pace of the discussion.
The seven-member board voted unanimously to study the issue further but set aside a proposal to pay for a consultant and a voter poll that would have opened the way to placing the issue on the presidential race ballot in the fall.
“It’s our due diligence to find out what the tax needs to be, not what the community can bear,” said trustee Onita Pelligrini.
The idea of a parcel tax drew fire from some board members at a special board meeting earlier this month when trustees were critical of what they described as a ramped up timeline.
First year president Frank Chong initially floated the idea of studying a parcel tax in what he described as a multi-faceted strategy for shoring up the college’s resources. He also has proposed seeking grants and federal aid targeting the school’s growing population of Latino students.
Tuesday’s discussion came as part of a board retreat held at Pepperwood Preserve off of Franz Valley Road. A performance evaluation of Chong was conducted during closed session.
Trustees continued to question whether a voter poll could be conducted and analyzed sufficiently to meet an August deadline for putting a tax on the November ballot. The discussion never advanced to the point where board members discussed possible per-parcel amounts for the tax.
About 180,000 parcels are located with the college district’s voting area, which encompasses almost all of Sonoma County, and it was unclear if seniors or multiple-parcel landowners would have been granted exemptions.
“I think we need more study, and I’m glad we are waiting and not going in November,” said trustee Bob Burdo.
Santa Rosa Junior College leaders have never before asked voters to approve a parcel tax, which would be a levy placed on homes and other property. Voters in 2002 resoundingly supported a $250 million bond measure to pay for building projects that helped transform both the Petaluma and Santa Rosa campuses.
“I respect the board’s decision to be deliberate,” Chong said. “It’s certainly a big decision to bring before the voters.”
Chong, in his first year at the helm of the college, has maintained that a parcel tax would be just one option among many for helping the college overcome state funding cuts.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said.
The issue had gained momentum in recent weeks as school officials brace for deeper cuts while state lawmakers struggle with a yawning deficit.
“We are kind of facing a rather difficult situation, fiscally,” said Doug Roberts, vice-president of business services at the college.
“We will take action,” he said. “This district is not going to go into insolvency. The problem is, what are the options?”
Course fees are set by the state, so local officials cannot raise revenues by increasing per-unit costs for students. The school already has cut back on both credit and non-credit classes and has seen its enrollment fall accordingly.
The area that would be affected by a parcel tax increase also includes a small area of unincorporated Marin County north of Novato, and areas of southwest Mendocino County encompassing Point Arena and Manchester.
Trustees said the outcome of Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax initiative on the November ballot will inform educators how to proceed with shoring up funding locally.
Sonoma County voters will “step forward when they see the need,” Burdo said. “And they don’t see it now.”