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Santa Rosa to survey residents on spending $95 million PG&E settlement

Santa Rosa city officials are working out a plan to ask fire victims and members of the public how to use the money the city received from PG&E to settle claims arising from 2017 wildfires.

The city received roughly $95 million from the utility in July and got the ball rolling earlier this month at its annual goal-setting meeting, long-delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The City Council assigned the initial work of preparing a plan for the funds to a council panel focused on long-term financial matters.

That panel met Thursday, assenting to a plan that will involve surveying Santa Rosa residents, specifically reaching out to residents and organizations in Coffey Park and Fountaingrove. City finance and communication staffers expect to develop those surveys and other ways of gathering input over the next few weeks before beginning to gauge community sentiment in September, said Adriane Mertens, the city’s top spokeswoman.

“It’ll likely be a mix of input collection through digital surveying and through community meetings, with one effort targeted to fire survivor neighborhood areas and a broader surveying effort to collect community-wide input,” Mertens said in an email.

While the city is still in the early stages of planning how to use the money from PG&E, officials have some ideas already.

The city needs $42 million to $47 million to fund a variety of public works projects related to the Tubbs fire, according to Alan Alton, the city’s acting chief finance officer. That includes about $28.1 million estimated to repair damaged pavement and sidewalks, and another $14.5 million to rebuild the Fountaingrove fire station the Tubbs fire destroyed. The figures include local match funds the city is required to put up as well as reimbursement requests for projects the Federal Emergency Management Agency has either denied or deemed ineligible.

Mayor Tom Schwedhelm expressed a desire for staff to divide the $95 million into three different categories: recovering from the impact of the Tubbs fire, making the city safer from future disasters and addressing current city budget needs.

In June, the City Council passed a budget that would nearly drain the city’s general fund reserves, a decision made with the knowledge that the settlement money was coming later in the summer. Councilman Chris Rogers expressed a desire to sock away some of the $95 million into the city’s reserves, which were depleted by the initial response to the fire. A healthy reserve fund is prudent, he said, citing the threats posed by the upcoming fire season and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve learned pretty clearly that we need to have a reserve that we can be able to rely on if something goes wrong,” Rogers said.

The settlement discussions likely will gain further momentum after the city holds a budget review meeting Sept. 15.

The only members of the public to comment Thursday were a trio who asked the city to put about $2 million toward Santa Rosa’s share of a permanent library branch in Roseland.

“We believe the time to plan for a permanent branch is now,” said Pat Kuta, a member of the Roseland Library Coalition, “and the issue is urgent.”

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

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