PD Editorial: For Measure J: Sonoma has thrifty record

  • PC: Sonoma City Hall where they have saved on utilities by taking advantage of large windows for light and thick stone walls for insulation from hot or cold weather.

    6/4/2001: B1-C: Sonoma's energy-friendly City Hall, in the Plaza, was built in 1908.

    9/30/2001: 7-C: Sonoma's historic City Hall, located in the city plaza, was built in 1908.

The tide of red ink swamping area cities has largely bypassed the town of Sonoma.

Through careful management of city finances, Sonoma has kept its $10 million-a-year budget balanced without laying off workers, raising taxes or draining reserves.

Sonoma was not spared the effects of the recession. The city's primary sources of revenue — property, sales and hotel room taxes — declined for a period, just as they did in other communities, before showing some growth this fiscal year.

In response, the City Council moved to control costs. Some pay raises were deferred, others were canceled. City employees agreed to pay a larger share of health insurance and retirement costs.

This year, Sonoma contracted with the Valley of the Moon Fire District, allowing the city to eliminate its fire department, reducing the city staff to 36 employees for 10,600 residents. Sonoma went the same route with police protection in 2004, reducing a major expense before the real estate bubble burst, starting a downward economic spiral that's only now reversing course. Sonoma never joined the list of cities that retroactively increased pension benefits, and it has always relied on nonprofit groups for recreation, after-school and senior programs, forgoing the expense of a city parks department.

It's an impressive record of fiscal stewardship, and city officials are justifiably proud.

Now, however, they have experienced a setback that they believe will require additional revenue, and the city is asking voters to approve Measure J, a five-year, half-cent sales tax increase on the June 5 ballot.

The setback is the state's elimination of redevelopment, a mechanism that allowed cities and counties to sequester property revenue in blighted areas to pay for economic development and affordable housing.

City Manager Linda Kelly said Sonoma uses redevelopment money for street maintenance (about $800,000 a year), graffiti abatement and economic development as well as to offset some staff costs related to managing the program.

The city canceled business rehabilitation and business facade improvement programs that were funded by redevelopment money, but it still faces a budget shortfall of $1.2 million to $1.7 million. Measure J would raise about $1.1 million a year, meaning the City Council still would have some budget-cutting ahead.

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