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In a move to help stave off unlawful evictions of tenants in Sonoma County amid a red-hot rental market, the Board of Supervisors on Monday approved a five-fold increase in funding for a legal assistance nonprofit to expand its tenant protection programs.

Supervisors are boosting county funding for Sonoma County Legal Aid to increase services for low-income and Spanish-speaking only Latino residents, who officials said are disproportionately affected by a host of problems associated with the current housing crisis, including retaliatory evictions.

“I believe going after the miscreant landlord via the civil route is going to be more successful than the code enforcement route,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, who drove the proposal to expand funding for Legal Aid. “Code enforcement cases can drag on. Receiving a civil summons as opposed to the code enforcement route, I believe, is like night and day.”

Supervisors signed off on $183,000 for Legal Aid to hire additional staff, which could include a bilingual attorney and case manager, as part of the board’s 2016-17 fiscal year budget hearings that began Monday.

“We’re thrilled,” said Ronit Rubinoff, executive director for Legal Aid. “We’ll be able to take additional steps to protect tenants and equalize the playing field. We are seeing some real abuse of the county’s most vulnerable people. Tenants are being served with exorbitant rent increases, thrown out of their apartments, and units that were once affordable are no longer affordable.”

Supervisors are expected to discuss a host of other high-profile initiatives in the county’s spending plan throughout the week, including several potential tax proposals that could fund a massive expansion of early childhood education for all of the county’s 3- and 4-year-olds, long-delayed road repairs, new affordable housing development and additional protected open space at Sonoma County Regional Parks.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo, the board chairman, opened budget hearings with remarks on the mass shooting this weekend at an Orlando, Fla., nightclub that left 49 people dead and 53 wounded.

“We all have Orlando in our hearts,” Carrillo said, adding that Sonoma County sends “heartfelt condolences to the friends and families of the victims of the horrific act of hate and terrorism.”

Supervisors on Monday boosted next year’s recommended budget by nearly $20 million in spending, for a total budget of $1.66 billion. Carrillo celebrated the county’s brighter financial outlook, but also expressed caution when discussing the county’s long-term goals.

“We’ve made significant progress compared to where we were eight years ago and we are in a far better financial position,” Carrillo said. “But we still have significant unmet needs and unmet responsibilities on roads, county infrastructure, preschool and unfunded liabilities.”

The 2016-17 budget is up 1.4 percent from 2015-16, due largely to across-the-board increases in tax revenue. Property taxes, sales taxes and hotel bed taxes shot up a total of 5.9 percent, for $15.1 million in revenue. Property taxes, the largest source of discretionary dollars for the county general fund, comprised the largest share of the growth.

The county’s general fund grew 2.8 percent to $443.4 million.

The spending plan includes a roughly 1 percent increase in staffing, for a total of 4,147 full-time employees. It includes a $46 million investment in housing and homelessness initiatives, $19.2 million to repair county roads and $3.3 million to advance the annexation of Roseland into the city of Santa Rosa.

The county has not changed its offer of $13.1 million, still far short of what Santa Rosa officials requested last year. The city suggested last fall that the county contribute about $41.5 million over a decade to help improve the roads, parks and government services in the county-controlled islands surrounded by southwest Santa Rosa.

Next year’s budget includes $7.2 million in new spending on salary and benefits increases for most county employees as a result of new labor agreements reached earlier this year with eight of the county’s 11 bargaining units, as well as one group of unrepresented county employees.

Beefed up hiring will allow the county to administer new initiatives, including an office set up to increase civilian oversight of law enforcement, one that puts new limits on vacation rentals and another that meets local mandates in the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Supervisors on Monday also signed off on $125,000 in new spending for the Social Advocates for Youth Dream Center to increase the number of beds for homeless youth, as well as expand homeless outreach services in Sonoma Valley.

The county’s initial proposal to augment services at Legal Aid was $100,000, but supervisors boosted spending to $183,000 following a request from Rubinoff, the Santa Rosa-based nonprofit’s executive director. She had asked for $300,000 to hire two attorneys and two bilingual caseworkers, as well as to open a satellite office outside Santa Rosa. Last year, the county provided $32,000 to the nonprofit for its tenant and housing assistance program.

“That is critical to our success in serving tenants,” Rubinoff said. “The conduct out there has reached a level I haven’t seen in 25 years.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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