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Record-high real estate valuation in Sonoma County: a double-edged sword

Sonoma County’s net tax revenues have reached an unprecedented high of $120.5 billion, representing a 5.22% increase over the previous year. This growth, fueled by a robust housing market and inflation, means significant revenue for critical public services such as schools, community colleges and infrastructure.

However, this financial windfall also comes with challenges. On June 20, 2024, the Sonoma County Civil Grand Jury released a report raising concerns about the transparency and efficiency of how these funds are being used. The report highlights the need for improved financial oversight and accountability within the county.

The grand jury report points to a backlog in property assessments that has been exacerbated by wildfires, the pandemic, and the implementation of Proposition 19. This backlog can result in significant, unexpected tax bills for property owners. To address this, the grand jury recommends that the Board of Supervisors hire temporary staff to work through the backlog by December 2024.

A key finding of the grand jury is the lack of comprehensive, accessible reporting on tax revenues and spending. The report states, “The public is entitled to the information it needs to make informed judgments about taxes and government spending.” This lack of transparency makes it difficult for citizens and policymakers to understand how resources are allocated and whether they are effectively addressing issues such as mental health and homelessness.

The grand jury recommends several actions to improve this situation. By February 2025, the Board of Supervisors, the ACTTC, and the County Office of Education should determine the staff and services needed to make the Citizens’ Report a comprehensive representation of all property and sales tax revenues and expenditures in Sonoma County. They propose funding the ACTTC to include this categorized information in the Citizens’ Report beginning in fiscal year 2026.

The report also points to the ineffectiveness of current oversight mechanisms, such as citizen oversight committees and internal audits, which often do not provide the robust oversight needed to ensure efficient and effective use of tax revenues. The grand jury calls for a significant increase in compliance and performance audits to assure the public that the promised oversight is in place.

While record tax revenues are a sign of economic growth, they also underscore the need for greater transparency and accountability in public finances. Overcoming these challenges will determine whether this financial milestone truly benefits the entire community.

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