Cost of wildfires for city of Santa Rosa: $5 million and growing

The City Council killed a stalled City Hall building project Tuesday to divert $2.3 million for recovery efforts. 'We are on track to significantly overspend our budget,' the chief financial officer said.|

The wildfires that obliterated entire Santa Rosa neighborhoods last month have also blown a huge hole in the city’s budget.

The city estimates that it has spent at least $5 million fighting the Tubbs and Nuns fires and dealing with the aftermath of the disaster, which claimed 23 lives in Sonoma County and destroyed an estimated 5,130 homes here.

Much of that money was for overtime for firefighters, police officers and public works crews, some of which is expected to eventually be reimbursed by the federal and state governments.

In the meantime, Santa Rosa has burned through pretty much all of the $5 million in “unassigned” funds that it had in its current budget above the 17 percent reserve level, Debbi Lauchner, the city’s chief financial officer told the City Council on Tuesday.

“We are on track to significantly overspend our budget,” Lauchner said.

The city spent $2.5 million beyond its budget in the first two weeks alone, she said. A more precise accounting of the expenditures to date is in process, she said. The city has a total budget of $385 million, $154 million of which comes from the general fund, out of which most city services are paid.

City Manager Sean McGlynn said he expects a variety of other significant costs ahead for the city, and he asked the council to approve a $2.3 million bump to the funds he directly controls to pay for them.

He pointed to the melted storm drain pipes in Fountaingrove and the need to beef up staffing in the Planning and Economic Development Department to address a flood of debris removal and rebuilding applications in coming weeks and months as examples of the kind of additional expenses the city faces.

But the council had a lot of questions for McGlynn about where the $2.3 million was coming from, how he planned to spend it, and what kind of oversight the council would maintain.

The plan, McGlynn explained, was to officially cancel a project that most council members thought they had already scrapped - a one-stop-shop at City Hall for a variety of public chores, from paying a water bill to pulling a building permit - and use the remaining cash in the account.

The idea of converting the vacant former Westamerica Bank building on First Street, which the city purchased in 2009, into such a “service hub” was proposed by McGlynn soon after his arrival in 2014.

Putting the 14,500-square-foot building to good use was originally welcomed by the council, and it budgeted $2.5 million for the project. But the costs rose “exponentially,” in part due to compliance with the disability-access requirements, McGlynn said, and the project was halted in June 2016.

“We were getting estimates that nearly doubled the project cost,” McGlynn said.

All told, the city spent about $575,000 in staff time and architectural drawings trying to make the service hub a reality, including $375,000 from a building fund and $200,000 from the project fund, Lauchner said.

The remaining money allocated for the project sat untouched through the entire 2016/2017 fiscal year, and was not made available for spending by the council in this year’s budget, either.

That seemed to peeve some council members, including Julie Combs, who said she thought they’d already killed the ?project, and Tom Schwedhelm, who wondered why the money hadn’t been returned to the general fund for other uses.

McGlynn explained that the money wasn’t moved back because, despite discussions by staff, the project hadn’t been officially terminated.

“Unfortunately, we probably should have been more responsive than where we are today on deprogramming the money,” McGlynn said.

Council members had concerns about transparency, too. McGlynn normally has a $300,000 budget and authority to spend up to $100,000 at a time with prior council approval. The idea of boosting his budget seven-fold, even in an emergency, gave some council members pause.

But they approved the request unanimously after they received assurances that they were not giving McGlynn what ?Councilman Chris Rogers called “a $2.3 million blank check.”

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