Park Supporters Scramble in Wake of Occupancy Tax Rejection

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June 8, 2012 by   - () Leave a Comment

With a July 1 closure date looming, supporters of Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in California have a short window to figure out how to keep the park open in the wake of Measure C failing at the polls.

But despite the disappointment and tight timeline, they are still optimistic about finding a way, The Union Democrat, Sonora, reported.

“I think what we got out of this whole process is there’s really tremendous support in the community for Railtown,” Cathy Taylor, district superintendent for the State Parks’ Capitol District, said Wednesday (June 6). “We’re stepping back from the disappointment from yesterday and figuring out what alternatives we have.”

The alternative they were all hoping for is no longer viable, as Tuolumne County voters on Tuesday rejected a proposal to expand a lodging tax. The county Board of Supervisors promised that if the tax measure passed, the additional revenue raised would go to help fund Railtown and the Mother Lode Fair.

The lodging tax, known as the Transient Occupancy Tax, raises about $2 million a year in Tuolumne County through a 10 percent charge on hotel and motel rooms. The ballot initiative, Measure C, proposed adding RV parks, private campgrounds and houseboats to the TOT.

County leaders have said that $200,000 raised from the tax would go toward Railtown, along with some local private money, and help keep the park running to some capacity for three years. Railtown is among 70 state parks the Department of Parks and Recreation targeted for closures by July 1 to save money.

But a number of those parks are expected to stay open thanks to local partnerships and alternative funding plans. Railtown was among that group, assuming that Measure C would pass.

“We all just need to get creative,” Taylor said, adding that the involved parties need to find another way.

One of those ways could be more than $50,000 expected to be raised by the local Rotary clubs through multiple fundraisers in recent months. Those include a special event Saturday at Railtown with music, drinks other refreshments and train rides.

John Zach, of the Twain Harte Rotary Club, said a dinner gala at the Seven Sisters raised $18,000. The ongoing Corvette raffle is expected to raise about $30,000 and Saturday’s event will hopefully raise $5,000.

Isaac Kight, who has also been involved locally with the Sierra Railway Foundation, said the hope is that California State Parks will allow that money to be used to keep Railtown running at least through the rest of the season. That will buy some more time for another solution.

“We have raised a lot of money,” Kight said. “We want to ask the park service to try to keep it open for the rest of the year with that money and see what happens after that.”

However, Kight said he believes it’s ultimately an issue the state will have to resolve. He and other Railtown supporters have suggested setting up a non-profit organization to run the park’s day-to-day operations and support it through donations, volunteers and grants.

But he said on Wednesday that’s unlikely. And with Tuesday’s vote, local financial support from the public sector seems to be as well.

“I think the message from this election is this is the state’s problem, and the state needs to fix it,” Kight said.

Some in Sacramento are working on it, and a bill is winding its way through the Legislature that could save some of the parks on the closure list.

AB 1589, co-authored by Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, proposes a number of alternative funding sources for the parks. It also changes the process for closing parks, and forces the parks department to disclose its methodology before closing a park.

The bill passed the Assembly and is expected to be referred to committee soon, according to Olsen’s office. But it will not pass by the July 1 closing date, even if it has support.

That leaves supporters with a short window to find a way to keep the gates open, at least until a permanent solution can be found. Taylor said she’s optimistic that will happen, and she said all the involved parties will be meeting over the coming days to find the best option.

“There’s a little work to be done. We have to get through the next week or two and figure out where we are,” she said. “I do believe there are some alternatives. No one wants to close the park.”

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