Sonoma County’s Board of Supervisors has adopted a $2.27 billion budget for the 2023-24 fiscal year — a slight overall decrease from the current year, but one that reflects an additional 2.8 percent allotted to payroll for the county’s 4,390 full-time employees, the board said in a statement.
“While it does not solve all our problems, without extravagance it meets our needs,” Supervisor Chris Coursey, the chairman of the board, said of the spending plan. “It takes care of our employees, safeguards core public services and ongoing county operations, addresses department requests and infrastructure needs, and promotes good governance by bolstering the county’s rainy-day fund.”
The budget for the current year is $2.29 billion, according to the county’s website.
The board approved the budget Friday with minor changes after agreeing on its proposed framework at a meeting June 13.
‘Do or die’ for affordable housing
In reaching its final budget, the board first had to decide how to allocate about $46.7 million in one-time discretionary spending, most of which comes from savings from staff positions that are vacant. But the division of those funds caused some disagreement among the board.
Supervisors agreed unanimously to use about $7.7 million to keep alive a plan to build an extensive affordable housing complex called Casa Roseland in the Tierra de Rosas community, which is in Coursey’s District 3.
The project has struggled to break ground due to cost increases and uncertainty about funding, including the amount that will be contributed by the city of Santa Rosa. County staff said this could be the last opportunity to make the affordable housing complex a reality.
“I can’t underscore enough that we are at ‘do or die’ with this project,” said Michelle Whitman, executive director of the county’s Community Development Commission.
The tentative agreement came with conditions.
Prior to the non-binding straw poll, which the board uses to direct staff to make changes to the proposed budget before final votes, Supervisor Lynda Hopkins suggested other supervisors also receive money for projects in their districts. Her proposal to earmark $4 million for each district besides District 3 was supported by Supervisors Susan Gorin and James Gore.
Coursey and Supervisor David Rabbitt disagreed with the idea of setting aside $16 million for district-specific spending, rather than including the money in the general fund.
“I would really ask us to stay away from ‘buckets’ to each district,” Rabbitt said. “What we’re really dealing with is prioritization for the entire county, not prioritization within the district.”
Coursey, too, said he had a problem with the idea.
“There are five of us who are on this board for a reason, that we make decisions as a board. We don’t have bank accounts into the general fund that we spend on our own.”
He said the board should not look at expenditures from a “district-centric perspective.” “We’re elected to serve districts, to represent districts, but we’re a board to serve the county,” Coursey said.
But Gore said he wasn’t aware that the funding request for Tierra de Rosas would be made during the budget hearings and said he would not support the allocation without other districts receiving funds.
Hopkins said she intended use the money for basic “bread and butter” services like critical culvert repairs.
‘You can be courteous, or not’
Coursey asked to separate the straw poll votes for the Tierra de Rosas project and the proposal to set aside the district specific spending. Hopkins calmly pushed back, leading to another attempt by Coursey.
“I’m going to ask my colleagues, as a courtesy, not to hold my vote on Tierra de Rosas hostage to the district buckets,” Coursey said, explaining that he wanted to take the votes separately.
“I don’t understand why, we just voted for it,” Hopkins said.
“I’m asking that as a courtesy. You can be courteous, or not,” Coursey said.
Gore then agreed, but only if the district-specific vote was taken first, which it was. It was agreed to by a non-binding vote of 3-2, before unanimous approval of the Tierra de Rosas allocation.
Supervisors also agreed to propose setting aside about $5 million each for general fund reserves, road and infrastructure repair, renovations to the county morgue and public health lab, and pension liability.
Another $1.3 million was set aside for the reserve fund maintained to keep a balance for emergencies that can potentially be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which requires cities and counties to reserve some money to be eligible for such reimbursements.
That ultimately left few dollars to fund bike path improvements around the county that Gorin had favored. She suggested clawing some of the proposed money back from the district-specific earmarks. Hopkins resisted.
“I feel like I certainly have more than $4 million of needs in terms of critical infrastructure investments, so I wouldn’t support that,” Hopkins said.
Bay City News staff writer Pete Young contributed to this story.