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Sonoma County Supervisors have launched discussions on how to spend a $149.3 million settlement from PG&E stemming from the deadly wildfires of 2017 that were sparked by the utility’s equipment.

The process — which is to include weeks more of public input — starts as the county wrestles with a gaping budget deficit brought on by economic losses related to the COVID-19 pandemic and competing pressures for how to divide the funds.

“This discussion probably couldn’t come at a worse time,” Supervisor Susan Gorin said Tuesday. She reeled off a list of recent calamities that have socked the county, from floods to fires to repeated power outages to COVID-19, which has left 30,000 county residents jobless. “We all, with our big hearts, want to solve all the ills … for our community,” she said.

“We have record numbers of people who are unemployed right now … and they’re not sure how they’re going to pay their mortgages or make their rent.”

Supervisor Shirlee Zane

Gorin, who lost her home in the 2017 Sonoma Complex fires — which destroyed 5,300 homes in the county and killed 24 residents — acknowledged the economic and social pain the coronavirus pandemic is inflicting. But she spoke at greater length about a desire to make the county safer from fires like those that struck in 2017 and 2019.

“I think we need to fulfill our obligation to our community residents, 10,000 of them who lost their homes” in 2017, Gorin said. “The number one issue and need I hear … is never again. We need to pull out all the stops to really work on preparedness.”

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said the county should recoup at least the $26.8 million already lost to out-of-pocket fire-related expenses, mostly staff time and labor costs. Supervisor James Gore said the county should recover the property tax revenues it is projected to lose, estimated at $70 million, and also use funds to repair fire damage to infrastructure, such as roads, gutters and creeks, not covered by insurance.

Hopkins said, “We also suffered an assault on our social infrastructure” and that social services from mental health to childcare need new investment.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane spoke about the need to repair infrastructure and “harden” properties against future fires. But, alluding to dozens of county jobs at risk due to the county’s $45.7 million budget deficit, she added, “We have record numbers of people who are unemployed right now … and they’re not sure how they’re going to pay their mortgages or make their rent. I personally think we also need to think about what it would do to add to that unemployment line.”

Dozens of people submitted emails to the supervisors about their spending preferences; those weren’t immediately available. Eight people spoke during the board’s Zoom video conference meeting. All but one urged the board to spend its funds on housing, rental assistance, social services or all three areas.

Charlotte Borg, who lost her home in the 2017 fires, said, “Our community is in crisis again and this money presents a unique opportunity to provide humanitarian aid in this unprecedented time.” Borg, her voice choked with emotion, called for supervisors to provide rental assistance.

A man who gave his name as Jeff said, “Spend at least as much money for road repairs and maintenance as you received from PG&E for that purpose.”

The staff report says that a conservative estimate of road damage caused by private debris removal alone is $21.5 million but the actual costs are likely closer to $50 million.

The board is taking public input on how to spend the settlement until Sept. 4 at PGECommunityInput@sonoma-county.org. The issue will be back before supervisors Oct. 6.