Sherman R. Frederick
Is it a light at the end of the tunnel for the homeless in Marin, or a freight train bearing down on resident safety and property values?
That’s the question this week after the Marin County Board of Supervisors threw an unexpected curve ball to the city of Novato and its residents. The County has a chance to spend millions of “free” state money to buy a hotel in the county and turn it into a homeless facility. But the county must act fast and unilaterally to get the money.
The speed and lack of transparency of the action has brought on a firestorm of opposition in Novato.
The city, which found out about the idea only hours after the county voted to move ahead on Tuesday, Oct. 27, plans to hold a special meeting to let the county know where it stands. And, based on the comments from council members, it’s not likely to be a nice letter.
Mayor Pro Tem Pat Eklund, the longest seated Novato Councilmember, said “Novato has done a lot (for the homeless). We had no complaints because we always kept people involved.
“The county has not been transparent. This should not go forward.”
Eklund said she wanted to call a vote for Nov. 12 and let the county know where the city stands.
Councilmember Eric Lucan, who was the only Novato councilmember to express some willingness to consider the idea, said that his support can only come with the caveat that the county “backfill” the revenue Novato will lose if the Inn Marin comes off the city’s tax rolls.
Councilmember Susan Wernick scolded the Board of Supervisors for the rush.
“It’s been my experience that if we want to get folks on board they need a seat at the table, and unfortunately in this situation, no one had a seat much less a table to even sit at.”
In a normal year, the Inn Marin produces about $300,000 a year in room taxes and $10,000 a year in property taxes. Both Novato and the County of Marin are reeling from revenue loss caused by the COVID-19 shut-down.
Ironically, it was Novato’s representative on the Board of Supervisors, Judy Arnold, who made the motion to proceed with considering Inn Marin as a potential site for a homeless facility. That motion does not guarantee she will vote for buying the Inn Marin. She expressed concern about the future of Rickey’s restaurant, which is located on Inn Marin grounds. She also wanted to know about how staff will engage the surrounding neighbors about the idea.
Rickey’s, an upscale restaurant and longtime favorite in Novato, has a lease with the Inn Marin, so it can stay, but if the inn becomes a homeless facility, there are questions about whether it can survive that move and COVID-19 restrictions.
“I am supportive of taking the next step,” Arnold said in making the motion to proceed.
This doesn’t mean the staff will recommend proceeding with the purchase. To take advantage of the Homekey program, the county must make the decision by Nov. 17 and close escrow on Dec. 2.
County staff who specialize in coping with homelessness acknowledged that the speed with which this decision must be made is daunting. But they assured the county Board of Supervisors that any one of the sites will be put to good use in chipping away at helping the homeless in Marin. They also assured elected officials that if Inn Marin is selected, it will be safe, organized and well run.
Citizens who called into the county Zoom meeting in the morning were skeptical, calling it a bad location that would hurt the surrounding neighborhood more than it would help Marin’s homeless.
“I encourage you to take a step back. We need more than a week,” one caller told the board.
Another caller said putting a homeless facility at Inn Marin will “lower property values” of the large housing area that abuts Inn Marin. “There must be better sites.”
One caller asked the board if they will “refund my property taxes. It’s not fair.”
Social media lit up with negative comments about Judy Arnold, the county Board of Supervisors and the general idea.
“We could always threaten to move towards incorporating Ignacio Valley as it’s own town keeping all our high taxes local. That will raise a stir,” said one writer on NextDoor.
“Judy Arnold: Where do you live,” said another.
(Novato residents may get home delivery of the Novato Advance for only $59 a year by calling 415-892-1516. Stand by your hometown newspaper.)