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Sonoma County creates $10 million project fund, authorizes new hires to bolster climate action

Sonoma County supervisors reaffirmed their commitment to addressing the climate crisis Tuesday with a pair of moves that would devote up $12 million to projects and new staff devoted to advancing the county’s climate action and resilience goals.

The board established a $10 million Climate Resiliency Fund from the $26.7 million balance remaining from its PG&E wildfire settlement to use toward short-term projects that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon sequestration and otherwise help local communities mitigate and adapt to climate change and its effects.

The county also will add a deputy county administrator and two support staff who will coordinate with all county departments on government efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. That team also will be tasked with goals tied to environmental justice — ensuring the needs of traditionally underserved communities are met through a racial and economic equity lens that has become a countywide priority.

Total cost for the three staff members for the first three years was reported as $1.9 million, assuming 3% raises each year. Recruitment is complete for the support staff — an administrative aide and an analyst position approved last year — and interviews with job candidates were to begin this week.

Decisions on the projects to be funded out of the new climate fund will take place over a longer timeline. Supervisors Lynda Hopkins and Susan Gorin, who sit on the county’s special climate committee, came to the meeting with a vetted list of proposed projects that could be carried out in 18 months or less. But the full board agreed that more work was needed to define the criteria by which proposals are prioritized and funding allocated.

“I think we need to open it up (to) a bigger, broader view,” Supervisor David Rabbitt said.

Gorin and Hopkins agreed it might be helpful for their colleagues to see what items had been considered and left off the list, at least for now, allowing the group as a whole to evaluate potential funding opportunities.

But they underscored the urgency of identifying proposals that could make a meaningful impact on the crisis of the moment and which are studied, engineered and ready to go, if only money were available to bring them to fruition.

“It is time,” Gorin said. “It is past time.“

The board declared a climate emergency more than a year and a half ago and established the climate action committee, with Hopkins and Gorin as the lead members, in early 2020 only to have its attention and energy drawn away by wildfires and the COVID pandemic.

But Gorin, last year’s board chair, and Hopkins, who succeeded her this year, have worked to restore focus on the issue, which was identified in March as one of pillars of the county’s five-year Strategic Plan. The county also has established a goal of creating a carbon neutral community by 2030.

The provisional project list included one item already in the works: $2-to-$4 million set aside in March for fuel management grants for which applications already are coming in.

Other proposals include expansion of managed grazing vegetation management programs; enhancing mobile communications and broadband development to increase capacity for remote work; expansion of bike lanes or fare-free transit.

A number of projects addressed county-owned infrastructure related to things like installation of solar and battery storage in park restrooms, solar photovoltaic systems at the airport, solar canopy and battery storage at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building or perhaps other veterans hall, or expanding electric vehicle charging stations at county workplaces.

Officials said having a designated fund also would help the county qualify for matching grants and leverage other funding sources.

Supervisor Chris Coursey and others pointed out that many county departments have built climate action goals into their regular work for years or even decades, notably Sonoma Water, the Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, the Department of Transportation and Public Works and Sonoma County Regional Parks, as well as the county Regional Climate Protection Authority.

“This is a much deeper commitment,“ he acknowledged, but he said the work needed to address the primary source of greenhouse gases: internal combustion engines and automobiles.

To that end, supervisors seemed to support future action to prohibit new gas stations in the county, following the lead of the city of Petaluma, which took similar action earlier this year.

The climate committee also hosted a robust virtual town hall meeting on climate action April 6 in which county departments and representatives for a variety of nonprofit and nongovernmental agencies reported on their efforts to combat climate change. More than 400 people participated on various platforms, and the county received nearly 1,000 comments before, during and after the meeting, Sonoma County Energy and Sustainability Manager Jane Elias said.

Gorin recalled that Sonoma County was declared a climate leader in 2014 by then-President Barack Obama in large part for its creation of the Regional Climate Protection Authority in 2009, the nation’s first local government agency created specifically to combat climate change.

“It’s time for us to reassume that mantle of leadership,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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