When Sonoma County government offices reopen this week, many after a mandatory, seven-day closure over the holidays, there will be plenty of new faces occupying top job slots.
New county supervisors Mike McGuire and David Rabbitt, Sheriff Steve Freitas, District Attorney Jill Ravitch and County Counsel Bruce Goldstein all begin in their positions this week before a ceremonial swearing-in Jan 11at the first Board of Supervisors meeting.
State officials associated with the county, including six new superior court judges and new county schools chief Steve Herrington, will also take office over the next two weeks.
The new county leaders are taking over from predecessors who tallied a combined 56 years at the helm of county government. They include supervisors Paul Kelley and Mike Kerns, Sheriff Bill Cogbill and County Counsel Steven Woodside, all of whom are retiring, and outgoing District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua.
Together with the earlier retirements of two veteran supervisors, Tim Smith and Mike Reilly, it brings a new era in county government.
"I think we can honestly say that an era has passed," Supervisor Efren Carrillo said. In 2009, the now-29-year-old Carrillo replaced Reilly, who retired after 12 years as the west county supervisor. The same year, Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who represents Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park, took over for Smith, who held the office for 20 years.
"It's definitely a changing of the guard, without a doubt," said Zane, 51. She said the shift mirrors changes in county population and demographics.
County government now has its first female district attorney in Ravitch, its first female county administrator in Veronica Ferguson, who started last February, and, in Carrillo, its first elected Latino representative.
"It's a healthy reflection of a democracy," Zane said.
Yet given the county's fiscal challenges, the inaugural toasts coming from county headquarters on Administration Drive next week might be accompanied by a collective gulp.
The county's projected general fund budget deficit for next fiscal year, estimated at $27 million just months ago, now is about $36 million without the use of special reserve funds.
Plunging property tax revenue and rising employee costs could grow that gap before July, when the next fiscal year begins. Already, in the past two fiscal years, deficits of roughly $62 million and $22 million, respectively, resulted in the elimination of nearly 300 filled and unfilled jobs and about 95 layoffs.
Another round of deep job cuts and layoffs is likely, officials said. Supervisors are set to begin those discussions in their third meeting of the year, on Jan. 25.
"We're going to have to become leaner and meaner than we already are," Zane said. "Some departments can do that. Others, not so much."
The grim forecast could force the new supervisors, sheriff and district attorney to shelve some campaign promises and focus instead on defending existing services and programs they deem essential, political observers said.
Already, Ravitch, Freitas and Goldstein — who is not elected and serves at the pleasure of the board — said they are looking at key jobs they may not be able to fill or programs they may have to cut.
Disagreement among leaders over those decisions could produce gridlock, some say.
"It isn't clear with this many new folks what they truly believe in setting priorities on what to cut," said David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political science professor. "Because this is what we're talking about — what there is to cut. It's not just fiscal austerity. It's much worse."