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Sonoma County agrees to spend $35 million of PG&E settlement on fire prevention, affordable housing

Capping a lengthy and conflicted discussion, a majority of Sonoma County’s supervisors voted Tuesday evening to spend a total of $35 million from PG&E’s settlement linked to the 2017 wildfires on a combination of wildfire protection and affordable housing.

About $85 million remains from the $149 million payout after the board last month tapped nearly $27 million of the settlement funds to help fill a budget deficit.

Supervisor David Rabbitt cast the lone dissent on a 4-1 vote Tuesday, saying he wanted more detailed reports about how the money to be used would achieve its ends. Of the money allocated Tuesday, $25 million would go to fire protection, described as brush management, and $10 million to affordable housing.

The board’s third leading priority was repairing miles of county roads damaged by the firestorm three years ago. Supervisor James Gore’s initial motion was to spend $34.2 million on roads, $25 million on vegetation management and $10 million on housing, seconded by Supervisor Shirlee Zane.

A total of 38 people addressed the board via Zoom during the discussion that ran more than three hours, with several imploring the county to repair heavily damaged Cavedale and Trinity roads above Sonoma Valley.

A decision on road repair spending was ultimately postponed.

Ahead of Tuesday, the heaviest lobbying came from fire survivors who urged the county to devote most of the settlement funds to a more aggressive and long-term brush clearance initiative, including robust fire breaks surrounding communities.

Prior to Gore’s motion, Susan Gorin, the board chair, suggested spending $40 million on roads, $35 million on vegetation management and $10 million each on housing, emergency alerts and climate change programs ― spending most of the remaining $120 million.

Rabbitt, known for his cautious approach to fiscal issues, asked about the rationale behind the spending in her proposal.

“They’re coming from me,” she said, adding there were “no specifics” to any of them.

“I’m not going to be comfortable pulling numbers out of thin air,” Rabbitt said, asserting there was no need to rush through a spending plan.

Gorin subsequently suggested the board should engage in a “more thoughtful process” and hold up the $10 million for housing until Santa Rosa commits to an equal amount for a joint city-county project known as a renewal enterprise district.

Zane, whose district is Santa Rosa-based, objected, saying “people are going to be wildly disappointed” with such a decision.

“I don’t see a data-driven decision,” Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said, suggested that spending more on roads than on wildfire protection “might be sending the wrong message.”

Residents participating in the meeting had “poured their hearts out” about fear of wildfires and “here we are pouring money into roads,” she said.

“Roads don’t prevent fires,” Rabbitt said, repeating his contention that the one-time windfall from PG&E should be spent on what he called “generational change.”

“I think we do need to have facts over emotion,” he said.

“We're a split board," Gorin said at one point, and Gore expressed concern there would be a 3-2 vote. Zane favored a decision, saying she deplored ”paralysis by analysis.”

The final 4-1 vote came after Hopkins, with some reservation, joined the majority.

County Administrator Cheryl Bratton said the Transportation and Public Works Department would return with a specific road repair spending plan in 30 days.

After attorneys’ fees, the county’s share of PG&E ’s landmark settlement with Northern California governments over the 2017 and 2018 fires totaled $149.3 million ― 61% of the $244.3 million in damages claimed by the county ― and the board spent $26.8 million in balancing its budget last month.

A report to the board noted a disparity among residents in the more than 1,600 responses to a community survey on how the settlement money should be spent among 17 potential uses.

English responses ranked the top five uses, in order, as vegetation management (46%), alert and warning systems (41%) , road repair (32%), affordable housing (22%) and community preparedness (20%).

There were only 29 Spanish responses, listing financial assistance (55%), affordable housing (45%) broadband/internet (28%) community preparedness (24%) and alert and warning systems (21%).

Three of the uses made both lists, officials noted.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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