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Editorial: County needs to rally behind fix for its parks

It is no big surprise that, two years after its 50th anniversary, Sacramento County's regional park system is in deep trouble.

The question that remains is whether the county and parks advocates, facing a budget crisis, can put aside differences and find common ground on a secure funding source and governance structure that everyone can live with.

It was clear at Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting that all sides agree funding is the top priority. That's the good news. It is also encouraging that polling suggests that county voters would support a small tax hike to provide a dedicated source of revenue for parks.

But now comes the tough part. As Supervisor Roberta MacGlashan rightly noted at the beginning of the meeting, funding for the parks and governance of the tax revenue cannot be separated. "If you put a tax before the voters," she said, "that question has to be settled."

Supervisors will have to work hard to keep a coalition together – and to narrow options to what really is feasible.

Three were discussed:

An independent regional parks district, with an elected board of directors. The volunteer Grassroots Working Group, formed at the county's urging, recommended this.

A Community Services District, with an elected board of directors. County staff recommended further study of this option, although countywide community services districts are uncommon.

A Community Facilities District, with county supervisors as the governing body. Staff recommended further study of this option, too. It would require approval by city councils as well as county supervisors. Landowners (who would get one vote per acre of land) would have to approve a tax to fund the district.

Supervisors seemed to agree that on funding options, seeking a sales tax from voters is preferable to a parcel tax. Certainly, it's cheaper for residents, since visitors would contribute to the revenue. To generate $10 million a year from a parcel tax would require a flat $21 tax on the county's 471,000 parcels. In contrast, a 1/16th cent sales tax for parks would generate $12 million a year, costing $8.89 each year for an average household.

Proposals for auto rental and hotel taxes are nonstarters. That's going too far in assessing visitors for an amenity we all enjoy.

In the end, supervisors voted unanimously to seek legislation that would give them an option to place a 1/10 cent sales tax for parks on the ballot. That's progress.

But they failed to give clear direction to staff on which governance options to study – an oversight they need to remedy immediately.

Two of the options would require action by the Sacramento Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) before going to voters – a potentially time-consuming process for which funding is needed.

Supervisors could also follow the lead of other counties and seek authorization in their enabling legislation for a special parks district option not subject to LAFCO. The Grassroots Working Group recommended this.

Supervisors should exercise every means available to expedite their study process. Voters should have the opportunity to choose what kind of park system they want on the November 2012 ballot.