Santa Rosa’s post-fire budget picture darkened considerably Thursday when the City Council learned it’s on track to burn through nearly $18 million in savings this year, potentially leaving the city unable to pay its share of the cost of debris removal now underway.
City Manager Sean McGlynn told the council during its annual goal-setting process the city will be broke if state and local governments are required to pick up 25 percent of the $750 million cost of removing debris from the October wildfires.
“Right now as we sit, you do not have enough money in the bank to cover if that percentage does not change,” McGlynn said.
It was a sobering start to a three-day goal-setting process that began with members of the public urging the council not to ignore issues they held dear, from creating a greenway to protecting the homeless and immigrants, following its climate action plan, and establishing a public bank.
But the session quickly veered toward a painful reckoning with the financial realities facing the city.
“I don’t need to remind anyone that this is going to be a unique year in the history of Santa Rosa,” Mayor Chris Coursey said. “It’s going to be a difficult year for the community. It’s going to be a difficult year for the council and our staff.”
Just how difficult became clearer when the city’s new interim Chief Financial Officer, Alan Alton, outlined just how quickly the city is burning through cash. The city started the year with $37.3 million in its reserves. It planned to spend $6 million of that as part of its $385 million budget, which included extra money for the annexation of Roseland, expansion of the city’s homeless shelter, and legal aid for tenants facing eviction.
The council subsequently signed off on an additional $4.9 million in raises, cannabis regulation costs and other expenses.
Then the fires hit, and the city was forced to spend $7 million extra responding to it, including $4 million in overtime from fire responders and other city workers, $4.6 million on a contract to speed rebuilding permit requests, and $500,000 to outside accountants to track it all and help the city get reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That is expected to leave the city’s reserve level at $19.5 million at the end of the year. That’s $2.8 million below the 15 percent threshold the council has set as a policy for its budgets, and $5.6 million below the 17 percent reserve level the city prefers.
But the city’s share of the debris removal cost could be anywhere from $9 million to $23 million, depending on whether the city and state are required to pick up 25 percent of the tab or 10 percent. If it’s 25 percent, the city is in trouble, a point that Coursey and McGlynn said they made to legislators.
There is a Senate bill proposing to cap local matching funds at 10 percent, but it’s far from clear when or if it will pass. It’s not even clear if the federal government will be operating past this weekend.
But McGlynn took pains to remind the council and the department heads assembled that even in the best case scenario — with the local match set at 10 percent — the city faced a serious financial challenge ahead.
Read all of the PD's fire coverage here