Local measures to cover housing, rail, fire service

This aerial photo shows a section of Watsonville housing where Tuttle Avenue runs from left to right. In the November election voters will decide on Measure H, a bond that would help fund low income housing. (Photo by Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian)

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY — Measure H is a $140 million general obligation bond that would fund low-income and moderate housing projects, homeless shelters and loans for first-time homebuyers. It requires a two-thirds majority vote.

If approved in November, homeowners would pay for the bond, with the county placing about $16.77 per $100,000 of assessed value of their homes onto their annual property tax bills.

County officials estimate the bond would generate $8.6 million annually.

Of the $140 million throughout the life of the bond, $105 million would go toward construction of 1,041 rental units and accessory dwelling units for low-income and moderate-income households.

In addition, $21 million would go toward homeless facilities and year-round shelter and $14 million toward loans for first-time homeowners.

According to a report by the nonprofit California Housing Partnership, Santa Cruz County’s state funding for affordable housing dropped by more than $16 million between 2007 and 2017.

Meanwhile, the county is currently facing a shortage of nearly 12,000 affordable rental homes, the report said.

To help underscore that point, MidPen Housing Corp. Director of Housing Development Betsy Wilson said that ongoing affordable housing developments do not come close to meeting need.

In Watsonville, for example, the recently completed 46-unit complex called Pippin Orchards received more than 2,500 applications, Wilson said.

“(Measure H is) an important step in finding a new source of financing for housing we desperately need in the county,” she said.

Perhaps more importantly, the measure will help the county qualify for matching funds under Proposition 1, a separate affordable housing bond that voters statewide will consider on Nov. 6.

The measure would help people such as farmworkers, teachers and those who work in the medical field to be able to afford to live in the county, Wilson said.

Measure H supporters also say that seniors would be able to take part in the county’s Low Income Senior Property Tax Postponement Program, which allows seniors who meet certain criteria to temporarily postpone their property taxes.

Aptos business owner Kris Kirby, an outspoken critic of the measure, warned that the program is not an exemption, and must be paid back with 7 percent interest.

Opponents say that the bond will cost more than $274 million in principal and interest, and that there are better ways to generate revenue, such as increasing sales taxes.

Aptos resident Becky Steinbruner said that some homeowners are already saddled with four 35-year bond measures and nine special assessments, which have doubled her property tax bill.

“When my family bought property, we took out a loan and got a co-signer to help us be able to qualify,” she said. “Are taxpayers and local government becoming unprotected lending institutions at the expense of providing basic government services such as fire protection, which is not funded by the County General Fund, and road repair?”

Kirby said Measure H would burden future generations with a debt that will last for 35 years.

“It’s really going to affect a lot of people,” she said. “Seniors are hanging on by a thread and adding hundreds of dollars to their property tax assessment is really going to hurt them.”

Kirby added that, when proponents wrote Measure H, they did not mention the fact that it will take 35 years to pay off. This is a violation of Proposition 195, a 2017 law that requires anyone proposing tax increases to include the amount of money to be raised annually, the tax rate, and how long it will last, she said.

“It’s very misleading, and that really makes me nervous,” she said.

Kirby also wondered where housing would go in Watsonville, where there is little room for new housing projects, and in Pajaro Valley Unified School District, where schools are already overpopulated.

“I don’t understand why my house has to become less affordable so people who haven’t put the hard work into owning a home can afford one,” Kirby said.

But that is the wrong way to look at the bond, Wilson said.

“$16.77 per $100,000 of assessed value is a very good investment in the teacher who educates your child, the medical assistant who tends to your elderly parent, the worker who picks your strawberries at a local farm, and the server who pours you coffee at your favorite café,” she said. “Many of these workers are critical to our health and wellbeing and still others enhance our quality of life. But most can’t afford to live anywhere close to where they work.”

•••

Measure T

In Monterey County, voters will decide on Measure T, which would place a permanent tax on commercial, agricultural and residential properties to help fund North County Fire Protection District.

Specifically, the tax would be $39 per residential unit, $63.75 per unimproved lot or agricultural parcel, and 10 cents per square foot per commercial and industrial buildings.

County officials estimate the tax would raise an estimated $760,000 annually.

North County Fire Protection District is independent from the county of Monterey and relies entirely on a small portion of property taxes, a number that was reduced when the Moss Landing Power Plant was devalued.

In addition to performing its firefighting functions, which cover 125 square miles, the revenue would also help the district maintain its aging buildings and equipment.

There was no opposing argument filed for Measure T.

•••

Measure L

Measure L could eventually result in a pedestrian and bicycle pathway across the train trestle in Capitola, even as it scuttles plans for a countywide rail service.

The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, which owns the trestle and rails, already plans to build a trail for pedestrians and bicycles along the 32-mile stretch that runs from Watsonville to Davenport, while leaving the tracks intact for future rail projects.

But those plans call for a detour around the train trestle that stretches over Capitola Village. That detour would run on surface streets through the village, and across the Stockton Avenue Bridge.

Under a contract approved in June by the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission, Lakeville, Minn.-based Progressive Rail, Inc. has taken over the rail-freight operations in South County.

The RTC is responsible for an estimated $3 million to bring the tracks into working condition, and has applied for a FEMA grant to help cover the repair costs.

Progressive is also considering passenger rail service along the entire line.

Measure L would stop the city from creating the Capitola detour by prohibiting the city from spending money or performing construction on it.

The measure also directs the city to “take all steps necessary to preserve” the trestle for active transportation such as walking, cycling and wheelchairs.

But Measure L would have no bearing on what the RTC could do with the line, since the city has no jurisdiction over it or the trestle, said RTC spokeswoman Shannon Munz.

“Additionally, freight rail service is protected under federal law so the passage of this initiative would not affect freight service running on the line,” Munz said.

Munz said the rail line, trestle and rail-trail projects are funded by Measure D, a 30-year, half-cent sales tax passed by voters in 2016, which was estimated to raise $500 million for countywide transportation projects.

Organizers from Greenway Capitola, the measure’s main backer, have long opposed bringing rail into the county. Instead, they foresee a future in which the rail line is used exclusively for “active transportation” such as bicycles.

Opponents say the measure raises several legal questions.

In an impartial analysis of the measure, Capitola City Attorney Anthony Condotti said that initiatives and referendums such as Measure L typically cannot direct administrative or executive actions. He also said that the restriction on spending might “improperly” interfere with the Capitola City Council’s authority over its own finances.

Condotti also expressed concern that the measure is so vaguely worded that it is unenforceable.

“For these reasons, the measure may be vulnerable to a legal challenge as to its validity,” Condotti said.

Sean Shrum, who represents disabled and special-needs people, said that a rail-trail would benefit that community by offering a new commute option, which he said is particularly lacking in South County.

He fears that Measure L would end all hopes for such a project.

“Measure L will kill the rail trail, and it will be tied up in courts for years,” he said. “The process will drain public funds, and it will stop investments in South County.”

•••

Measure G

Measure G is a half-cent sales tax for the unincorporated parts of the county, which would fund new year-round homeless shelters in North and South County.

It would also pay for public safety and mental health professionals who would offer mental health and substance abuse treatment to repeat, low-level offenders. 

The funds could also help the county leverage millions more in grants and private donations for local parks.

These include LEO’s Haven at Chanticleer Park, a new Felton Nature Park and funds for South County parks.


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