Sonoma County voters are being asked to support a local sales tax measure on the Nov. 3 ballot that would bring in a quarter of a billion dollars over 10 years for mental health and substance abuse services for residents, including those who are homeless. The measure faces opposition from groups opposed to any new taxes during the pandemic-induced recession.

If approved, Measure O would institute a quarter-cent sales tax projected to raise $25 million a year, or just under a quarter of the county’s current annual spending on behavioral health. Voters could renew the tax in 2031. Some of the tax revenue would also go toward permanent housing for people who are homeless and suffer from mental health challenges.

The measure’s supporters, according to campaign finance documents, include a wide range of residents, elected officials, county employees and labor unions, who in October alone have backed the measure with $30,500. They argue that county residents face pressing mental health needs, which also contribute to homelessness, and that four wildfires in four years plus a pandemic have left many vulnerable to mental health challenges.

To take just one slice of the community, said Windsor Vice Mayor Esther Lemus, among Latino residents — who have suffered a disproportionate share of COVID-19 infections and make up a large share of essential workers — “There has been a lot of trauma surrounding this repeated risk of exposure.”

Combined with the threat of wildfires, Lemus said, “this will continue to drive the need for mental health services for the Latino community and the community at large for the foreseeable future, unfortunately.”

O is for opposition

No groups opposing Measure O have filed campaign finance disclosure statements, according to the county clerk’s office. But opposition is based in the 2020 Sonoma County Tax Moratorium Coalition, an ad hoc union of business associations. The Sonoma County Taxpayers’ Association also opposes the measure, saying the county has been financially irresponsible and has overspent on its employee pension plans.

The tax moratorium coalition has targeted all eight county and city tax measures on November’s Sonoma County ballot. It argues that with an economy battered by the pandemic, which has led to record job losses and forced many businesses to shutter for months, now is the worst time to ask people to spend more. The coalition is made up of prominent business groups including the North Bay Leadership Council, Sonoma County Farm Bureau, North Coast Builders Exchange and Santa Rosa Metro Chamber.

“Because we are in an economic crisis of this proportion, with so many losing jobs or hours as well as businesses closing or cutting back, it is the wrong time to ask for more taxes,” said Cynthia Murray, chief executive officer of the North Bay Leadership Council and a former Marin County supervisor.

Supporters of the measure say that opponents like the coalition have it backward.

“When your economy and people are hurting, you don’t de-invest, you invest,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a long-time advocate for the mentally ill. “And this is an investment in our families and our community, and it’s a huge investment.”

Businesspeople represented by the groups that oppose the measure, and who have at the same time voiced alarm about homelessness in the county, are being shortsighted, said Zane, who noted that a high proportion of people living on the streets suffer from serious mental illnesses.

“Businesses complain to us all the time in elected government: ‘What about the homeless issue?’ Well, it’s very clear. You have to look at the measure and what it’s going for,” Zane said. “This isn’t the general tax measure that goes into the coffers. This is a tax that specifically every dollar goes toward mental health and homeless services, every dollar.”

Measure’s effectiveness questioned

Murray and others say their opposition is not really about Measure O.

“We just need a pause right now with new taxes or extending taxes,” said Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. “We’re not getting into the details of each one.”

The No on Measure O ballot argument that Murray and Tesconi signed does actually touch — if lightly — on some details, calling out that the measure only allots $500,000 a year, or 2 percent of the tax revenues, to creating permanent and transitional housing for homeless people. “Housing for our homeless is a critical need,” their anti-O ballot argument says. “If it passes, Measure O provides only 2 percent of the $250 million raised for housing services. Without a coordinated strategy to address our homeless situation and without any meaningful funding, this tax won’t change the tragedy we see under overpasses and in our parks.”

County officials say only a small portion of the projected tax revenue would be allocated to permanent housing because the state is funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to counties for that same purpose. The measure also allows county supervisors, on a four-fifths vote, to adjust spending, if necessary, within the measure’s existing categories.

Sonoma County’s director of human services, Barbie Robinson, said Friday that 164 units of housing for homeless and low income tenants, 66 of which are set aside for people with severe mental illness, are about ready to come on line, as well as at least one hotel to be used for homeless housing. Those residents will rely on support services of the sort that Measure O would fund, she said.

The coalition’s argument also does not take into account that at least $10 million of the projected tax revenue, as outlined in the measure, would be also spent on creating housing for people exiting mental health care facilities, and on what are known as permanent supportive housing services, which are intended to assist people with substance abuse and mental illness issues so they can live alone successfully. Essentially, as it is written, beyond homeless housing, the measure would also fund services aimed at keeping people from becoming homeless and at preventing them from returning to homelessness.

O is for oversight

The opposition argument also criticizes the measure’s requirement for an oversight committee, saying it doesn’t specify who will be on the committee or what it will do. In fact, county documents have laid out with some specificity the categories of who would be on the seven-member committee, including a member from the business community, someone with experience of homelessness or mental illness and someone who is from a hospital or is a first responder — as well as oversight responsibilities that include reviewing tax revenue and spending.

Of the remaining tax revenue, $11 million annually would go toward emergency psychiatric services including inpatient services and mobile support teams that respond with law enforcement officers to calls involving a mental health issue or crisis; another $3.5 million would fund mental health services for homeless people.

Asked to comment on the specifics of what the ballot measure actually includes versus the tax moratorium coalition’s argument against it, Murray reiterated in an email: “We are not discussing the merits or demerits of any particular measure. We call for a tactical pause to see how we get through this, to ensure that whatever taxes are being put before the voters are the top priorities and based on the needs now and going forward and not on expenditure plans developed pre-pandemic or without knowledge of the lasting impacts of the pandemic. We are not anti-tax, we are ‘No, Not Now.”

Brian Sobel, a Sonoma County political analyst, said that in a year when the outlook for tax measures looks grim, Measure O is the rare one that might reach the two-thirds threshold it needs to pass.

“O will be close. I think they’re (tax measures) going to take a beating, to be honest with you,” Sobel said. “But I think with O, any time you’re talking about humans as opposed to roads or something else, when you’re talking about benefiting human beings directly, that sends it up the scale a bit.”

Some of the names who have endorsed the measure — Zane, for example, or Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St Helena — may also help it along, said Sobel.

“I think people listen to those folks,” he said.

Three local polls, the most recent in July, showed the measure had the support of about 70 percent of respondents.

At bottom, said Zane, whose husband committed suicide in 2011, Measure O is about easing the pain of mental illness and lessening its toll.

“There are untold numbers of people in Sonoma County, and families, that have suffered greatly because their loved ones didn’t get the mental health services that they needed,” Zane said. “And sometimes it’s the loss of life, which was the case with my husband, or a loss of a child, or a loss of a brother or sister. Living with that person who doesn’t get the care they need and seeing them suffer, it affects the whole family. This measure is going to decrease, at least, the human suffering and the human toll that it’s taken every day in this county.”