San Anselmo delays Memorial Park tax measure
San Anselmo town officials have canceled plans for special election to improve Memorial Park and will instead consider putting a tax measure on November ballot. (James Cacciatore/Marin Independent Journal) By ADRIAN RODRIGUEZ | email@example.com| Marin Independent Journal PUBLISHED: January 28, 2019 at 5:49 pm | UPDATED: January 29, 2019 at 6:27 am In response to a taxpayer group’s concerns, San Anselmo officials have canceled plans for a special election to improve Memorial Park and will instead consider putting a tax measure on the general election ballot this fall.
The Town Council decided last month that it would ask voters through a mail-in ballot this spring to approve a parcel tax to fund an estimated $8.24 million renovation of the park.
After meeting with town staff, the Coalition of Sensible Taxpayers, a nonprofit watchdog group known as COST, raised several concerns about the planned special election, including its disapproval of a proposed senior exemption and that the tax would have an open-ended term length.
“If they were going to come out strongly opposed to the tax, it would be a long and hard way to possibly win,” Town Manager David Donery said when contacted Monday. “We don’t want an organization saying that we’re doing anything that they perceive as not fully transparent, open and fair.”
Donery broke the news at the Town Council’s meeting on Jan. 22, the same night that the board was scheduled to make its official roll-call vote to hold a special election May 7 with a mail-in ballot. At the meeting, Donery said COST would remain neutral on the tax measure if it is placed on the November ballot and had a 30-year term. The announcement was informational only and no action was taken.
Originally, town staff recommended a $98 annual parcel tax that would continue “until ended by voters.” A two-thirds majority or 66.7 percent approval would be needed to pass. The town would take out bonds that would be paid back with tax revenues over 30 years.
The tax would have had a senior exemption, meaning those 65 and older could opt out. That means that 938 parcels out of about 4,800 would be eligible for that exemption.
In a letter sent to town officials on Jan. 14, the COST board of directors said it strongly urged the council to reject the proposal for a special election and instead consider placing a tax measure on the March 2020 ballot instead, a major statewide election.
“The merits of renovating and maintaining town parks are not at issue,” the letter reads. “However, the ends do not justify the means. Special elections abuse the democratic process.”
On Monday, Kentfield resident Mimi Willard, a founding member of COST, said the issue is that there is lower voter turnout during off-cycle elections and “many jurisdictions use the off-cycle election as a way to choose who’s going to show up and vote.”
Of the senior exemption, Willard said the ground would prefer no exemption or a possible senior discount, saying that seniors use the parks too and that an exemption would be unfair. COST preferred a 30-year tax term, so that it would last as long as the town was expected to pay back the bonds it plans to issue to fund the project, Willard said.
“We are very pleased that they have made some changes that are maybe more fair to the voter/taxpayers, while still being consistent with the desire to get Memorial Park renovated,” Willard said.
The fate of Memorial Park, which turns 100 in 2026, has been a burning question since residents in 2015 blocked plans to turn it into a flood retention basin. A ballot initiative prohibiting that use passed in November 2015 with 57 percent of the vote.
Passage of the initiative, however, resulted in the loss of an $8.72 million state grant that could have been used to cover 50 percent of converting Memorial Park into a dual-use site. None of that money is now available for improvements at Memorial Park.
The Memorial Park master plan initiative was launched in 2016 and approved last spring. The plan calls for a complete renovation, including revamping the playing fields, Elders Garden, the playground and other features and amenities.
In December, Mayor Matt Brown said he was not in favor of the special election and that he would rather see the tax measure on the general election ballot in November.
When contacted last week, Brown said, “COST made several compelling arguments.”
“I think San Anselmo is doing the right thing by going forward with a 30-year time limit on the ballot measure,” he said. “The general election is also the right thing to do.”
A new draft of the proposed tax measure will likely be up for consideration in July, Donery said.