Sonoma County Cuts Tourism Budget, Shifts Funds to Emergency Services … and Some in Industry Support Move: “To promote and encourage more visitors without adequately providing emergency services is both irresponsible, unconscionable and ultimately bad business,” Fred Peterson, a winery owner and long-time resident of Sonoma County told an Oct. 3 meeting of the county’s board of supervisors, as he registered his support for a million-dollar reduction in the budget of Sonoma County Tourism for next fiscal year. Instead, the funds will be made available for emergency responders who say that increased visitor traffic to the area has placed a heavy burden on them.
The reduction applies to the share of hotel-bed tax revenue received by Sonoma County Tourism. Currently, according to the local newspaper, The Press Democrat, which covered the Oct. 3 meeting, the agency receives a share of the funds equal to an estimated $3.1 million this year. The board of supervisors voted to lower that portion as they debated the larger question of how to spend the bed taxes and offset the impacts of the county’s booming tourism sector. Sonoma County Tourism has an annual budget of more than $8 million, most of which comes from a 2 percent assessment on room revenues of more than $350,0000 in the unincorporated areas and most of the county’s nine cities.
(Tourism is an integral part of the economy of the Sonoma County economy. A county of a half-million people, it sprawls across more than 1,700 square miles north of Marin County, along the California coast and into the central part of the state, has more than 425 wineries. Small wonder that vineyard tours, wine tastings and a diverse restaurant scene are popular with visitors. With a deftly aggressive marketing strategy, Sonoma has been able to elevate their brand to compete with their neighbor, Napa Valley.)
Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who chairs the five-member Sonoma County board of supervisors—one supervisor was absent on Oct. 3—said the organization could easily afford a reduction in bed tax revenue, pointing to a county review indicating Sonoma County exceeds similar California counties in the amount it spends on its tourism marketing organization. “I feel very strongly that the tourism bureau has an exceedingly rich, rich, rich budget,” Zane said. “You’ve got a good job. But it’s time now for some accountability, and it’s time to spend that money where the real impacts are happening.”
Tim Zahner, chief marketing officer and interim CEO of the Sonoma County Tourism, defended the level of funding his agency has received in the past, crediting supervisors’ previous allocations with helping the county receive an explosive growth in hotel bed tax revenue over the past decade. “Sonoma County’s investment in the hospitality economy is a unique, progressive approach to rural economic development that outpaces other California counties in results,” Zahner told the board. “Reductions in this investment will reduce yields in off-season and midweek visitation.”
The prevailing opinion at the Oct. 3 meeting seemed to be summed up by residents of the county’s Bodega Bay area, several of whom spoke at the session. They are hopeful the new bed taxes can generate some much-needed improvements to their area, which is heavily impacted by tourists, particularly in the summer months when beach goers flock to the coastal village.
“Unincorporated areas like our tiny little town are generating high percentages of the tourism tax-based income for our county while carrying most of the physical and monetary burdens resulting from this tax generation,” said Patty Ginochio, a Bodega Bay resident and business owner. “This increase in tourism has caused an impact to our community’s physical infrastructure, like our roads.”