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How Santa Rosa residents want to spend the $95 million from PG&E wildfire settlement

Better vegetation management topped Santa Rosa residents’ wish list after thousands answered the city’s call for help deciding how to spend the $95 million wildfire settlement paid out by PG&E.

Three Santa Rosa council members focused on long-term finance got an early glimpse Thursday of the results of the city’s months of feedback gathering, ahead of a full City Council meeting Tuesday on the subject. City staff are expected to present their proposed use for the PG&E settlement dollars at the Dec. 15 City Council meeting.

The three council members — Mayor Tom Schwedhelm and Councilmen Chris Rogers and John Sawyer — kept their comments brief ahead of next week’s meeting. They did offer some suggestions to sharpen the presentation — such as downplaying the nearly 20% who either indicated they didn’t live in the city currently or didn’t provide an area of residence.

Another 15% of survey respondents indicated they didn’t live in Santa Rosa during the October 2017 fires. About 20% said their home or business was damaged in the firestorm, which was headlined by the Tubbs fire.

“To be very frank, I don’t really care that much what people who don’t live here think we should spent the money on,” Rogers said.

The city set up digital tools that produced more than 3,000 responses to ranked-choice surveys of possible funding categories and over 1,400 more specific suggestions and comments on the use of the settlement funds. The responses are contained in a 228-page report compiled by city staff and were aggregated in a 51-slide PowerPoint presentation reviewed Thursday by the three City Council members focused on Santa Rosa’s long-term financial health.

The city also held three virtual meetings, two of which were delayed by the Glass fire, in addition to its digital surveys. Two of the meetings focused on wildfire survivors in the Coffey Park and Fountaingrove areas, and the other was a citywide forum.

“This is a rather extensive and exhaustive process that we went through,“ said Alan Alton, the city’s interim chief financial officer.

Santa Rosa received the $95 million as part of a $1 billion settlement PG&E reached with local governments for damage caused by 2017 and 2018 wildfires, many of which were linked to the utility’s equipment. The money arrived via wire transfer in a city account in July, prompting officials to set up a process of asking residents what to do now that they had the funds.

In addition to vegetation management, improving resilience by adding generators and microgrids ranked high with survey respondents, as did building better evacuation routes and increasing the community’s wildfire preparedness through education.

Overall, jump-starting affordable housing projects with incentives, repairing roads outside the fire zone and building new parks or fields were among the lowest priorities for respondents. And while about half of survey respondents agreed with using the money on homeless services, that option attracted the highest percentage of negative feedback in the form of people who indicated strong disagreement.

The variety of priorities among the Santa Rosa community was reflected in suggestions to investing the money or spending some of it on any number of possible line items, such as affordable housing projects, mental health services and addressing racism. Some expressed support for spending the settlement money to create sanctuaries for people experiencing homelessness, while others suggested buying homeless people a bus ticket out of town.

The 1,400-plus survey responses add some color to residents’ choices, especially when asked to name a cost for their suggested projects. One person advocated for Santa Rosa to spend “More money than the entire settlement!” on mitigating fire risk. Another person, following a theme of respondents who envision some sort of barrier between them and high-risk wildfire areas, called for using the sort of recycled water the city pumps to The Geysers geothermal power plant to “create a curtain of water to protect high-risk areas during imminent firestorms.”

“How do I know?” the survey respondent said when the city asked for a price tag. “The cost without sensible actions is death and destruction.”

Over the course of the public input process, the city has repeatedly reminded residents it would take an amount worth about half the settlement, or up to $47 million, to build or repair damaged or destroyed infrastructure. That includes an estimated $14.5 million to rebuild the fire station serving the Fountaingrove area — well above the $4 million price tag for the former fire station that was built in 2015 — as well as about $28 million to repair streets and sidewalk, including damage blamed on debris removal work after the fire.

The city also is considering restoring reserves to the tune of up to $40 million, paying down an unspecified amount of pension obligations, offering about $10 million as seed money for affordable housing projects and providing between $1 million to $10 for a permanent Roseland library.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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