In the early 1870s, with a population just over 7,000 people, Marin County approved a surprisingly large debt in order to finance several public improvement projects. In a period of less than two years the Board of Supervisors issued two bond measures and the voters approved a third which enabled total public funding to reach over 8% of the county’s entire assessed value of $3.3 million in 1871/72. To give this level of debt some perspective, 8% of the County’s current assessed value set at $74.2 billion would yield about $6.1 billion.
The public debt endorsed in the 1870s included a Road Bond, a Court House Bond and bonds to subsidize the cost of building the North Pacific Coast (NPC) Railroad. The $50,000 Road Bond was sold on May 9, 1870. In March 1872 a $60,000 bond was sold to fund construction of the courthouse. The public support for improved services was clearly demonstrated when in January 1872 the electorate voted by a two to one margin to approve a $160,000 subsidy bond for the railroad. These three funds meant $270,000 was made available for public improvement projects.
The 1870 Road Bond was intended to construct several wagon roads including: Sausalito to Bolinas; Nicasio to Marshall; Tomales to San Rafael; Novato to Hicks’ Valley; and to purchase Lucas’ Road. In February the Marin Journal opined “Our County is sadly in need of good roads, and this bill will provide the means of payment of the much needed thoroughfares.” However, it was soon discovered that a problem existed with the provisions of the law authorizing the sale of the bonds. Under the Act, owners of private property were eligible to be fully compensated for the damages caused by road construction. As it turned out damage claims proved to be more than double the funds available. In 1872 a subsequent action by the legislature clarified the requirements of the Act allowing construction of most of the roads to proceed as planned.
The need for a county courthouse was made specific by the Journal in December 1871, “Our County sadly needs a Court House, and the matter should be pushed through [the legislature] as speedily as possible.” Bonds to raise the funds needed for the courthouse were sold on the following March 26th. The new courthouse was completed in 1873 and served the county until 1969 when the last county offices were moved to the Frank Lloyd Wright Civic Center.
The largest of the early 1870s bonding measures was for a $160,000 subsidy to be granted to the North Pacific Coast railroad. There was high enthusiasm for a railroad through Marin, going from Sausalito to San Rafael and then west to Olema and Tomales. The actual proposition put to the voters described the railroad as commencing from the east side of B Street in the village of San Rafael, running westerly in the general direction of the road to Olema, and thence to the village of Tomales. The subsidy for the railroad on this alignment was resoundingly approved by the voters on January 29, 1872 with 486 yes votes to 234 no. Only the precincts of Novato, Bolinas and San Antonio where no service would be offered voted against the subsidy.
Voter endorsement of the railroad subsidy did not, however, lead directly to its construction. A more careful survey by the road’s engineer found construction costs would be twice that of earlier estimates. The Board of Directors searched for a revised route and sought additional public assistance. On August 8, 1872 the Directors proposed an alternative route north from San Rafael to Novato and west along San Antonio Creek which increased the subsidy to $325,000. The Board of Supervisors rejected these modified measures to reduce costs.
Further difficulties arose with the voter approved subsidy. Not wanting to give up on the amount previously endorsed by the voters, the railroad revisited the proposed line from Sausalito, up the Ross Valley and west to Olema and Tomales. To eliminate the high cost of bringing the line through the hill south of San Rafael, a proposal was made to serve San Rafael with a branch line connecting with the main line at San Anselmo. This idea was regarded as a breach of the public’s understanding of the intended route. According to the Journal on February 6, 1873, “…when the question of granting a subsidy to the railroad was being canvassed, previous to the vote thereon [if the trunk line would not run through San Rafael] the vote here would be overwhelmingly against the subsidy.” The supervisors had pledged themselves to require a main line through San Rafael prior to the award of the subsidy.
The railroad’s petition to abandon the trunk line through San Rafael was heard by the Board of Supervisors on February 6, 1873. Several public speakers forcefully reminded the supervisors of their commitment to a trunk line. In response, Austin D. Moore, President of the NPC, asserted that it would be impossible to persuade private capital to invest in a route when a less expensive alternate was available. He went on to conclude that the railroad could not be built through the hill south of San Rafael. Despite its previous pledge, the ultimatum appeared to convince two of the three-member Board to approve the subsidy for the NPC even though it meant only a branch connection to San Rafael. As noted in the Journal, “San Rafael Left Out in the Cold”.
The Board’s approval did not go unchallenged. A group of taxpayers, led by William T. Coleman, brought suit against the Board in an effort to block the subsidy. The suit ultimately reached the California Supreme Court where it was initially upheld, thus annulling the act of the supervisors. Curiously, the Court reversed its decision on April 4, 1876 and awarded the bonds to the railroad.
In the 23 month period from May 9, 1870 to March 26, 1872 Marin County committed itself to $270,000 debt, 8% of its total assessed value. These funds produced wonderful public improvements for the County including new and improved roads, a railroad and a courthouse.
Today, if funding in an amount equal to 8% of the County's 2017/18 assessed value could be secured, the budget of over $6 billion would be more than enough to build most of the rail transit, highway, bicycle and public building projects now proposed, as well as several of those envisioned in the most optimistic of long range plans.