Sonoma County and Santa Rosa seek aid for pandemic, strained municipal budgets
Faced with California’s rocky vaccination rollout, officials in Sonoma County and Santa Rosa want more pandemic funding and transparency from state officials, and are holding out hope for an infusion of cash from the incoming Biden administration’s coronavirus relief efforts.
In an “urgent request” sent last week, agencies representing local governments across the state laid out $1.2 billion in needs, including $400 million for vaccine distribution, to cover testing, contact tracing and vaccination costs for the next six months.
“This request is urgent due to current surge and strain that local health departments are experiencing as cases increase dramatically,” the California State Association of Counties said in the letter sent last week to Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state’s top lawmakers. “Local health departments cannot conduct contact tracing and disease investigation, maintain the network of testing sites, outreach to vulnerable populations and deploy vaccination plans without additional resources as soon as possible.”
It's not clear how much of that money would make its way to Sonoma County and Santa Rosa, where combined revenue losses tied to the pandemic and expenditures to fight it have soared above $130 million.
Without new relief funds for local governments, officials and lawmakers worry that key pandemic services will falter while the mass vaccination effort kicks off.
“The catch in the middle is, without additional funding — or more people — we would have to move existing staff from contact tracing and testing over into vaccinations,” said Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, who serves as the president of the California State Association of Counties, which has lobbied the governor for increased funding and transparency. “There’s only so much work that can be completed.”
Early feedback he’s received from state officials has been positive.
“We have had good response from them. We anticipate that a lot of this will be taken up in the expedited (legislative) session,” Gore said.
Sonoma County expects to spend $76.5 million on its response to COVID-19 by June 30, including testing, contact tracing and vaccine distribution efforts. The Board of Supervisors has tapped $20.2 million in discretionary funds to cover a large portion of the county’s response, and the board could increase its commitments as soon as Tuesday, when supervisors weigh boosting or extending a variety of safety net programs.
Santa Rosa’s spending also has increased, including more than $7 million alone on pandemic-era homelessness programs — more than twice what the city spends on services for people experiencing homelessness in a typical year. The city is bracing for a projected $56 million in coronavirus-related losses, including an $18 million hit to its general fund.
With costs mounting, and additional budget pressure on the way, local officials have continued to hound state and federal leaders about the need for more resources.
“We have been in consistent communication with our federal representatives on our needs and our response efforts,” said Marissa Montenegro, Sonoma County’s chief legislative liaison. “We continue to digest the information released by the Biden administration and progress on the state budget and will update our request accordingly.”
Hoping to backfill lost revenue, Santa Rosa leaders have written at least six letters since mid-April to federal and state lawmakers, starting with an April 13 missive focused on water utilities to the top Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Senate and House.
In one early May letter, then-Mayor Tom Schwedhelm expressed concern to state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, and Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, that smaller cities like Santa Rosa lack eligibility for funds granted to bigger cities. The city’s argument, in part, was that the promise of more direct aid would make it easier for the city to take quick emergency actions, such as sheltering homeless people with enough physical distance from others to keep them safe.
“In some cases, the estimated costs to initiate action have created delay in acting as quickly as is needed to implement programs that would further protect our unsheltered populations,” Schwedhelm wrote. “Knowing we were to have emergency financial relief coming our way would give us more confidence in making these decisions on how best to protect our community.”
County leaders, too, have regularly reached out to state and federal lawmakers, albeit with mixed success.
The county’s plea in a Dec. 7 letter to Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, for local assistance in the second stimulus signed late last month ran into GOP opposition to an expanded aid package for state and local governments.
County officials are hopeful a Biden administration — and Democratic control of Congress — bodes well for additional aid.
“I’m hoping it could only be a positive,” Supervisor David Rabbitt said. “Democrats, they were the ones in the last negotiations that were looking out for state and local government. So I think it could put us in a better position.”
The Biden administration, as part of a proposed $1.9 trillion stimulus package, wants to send about $350 billion to state and local governments to bridge budget shortfalls and another $440 billion to advance their fight against COVID-19. But questions remain regarding how that aid will be rolled out, including whether cities and counties will receive direct aid — and whether smaller jurisdictions like Santa Rosa and Sonoma County will qualify.
In the spring, Sonoma County, with a population just under 500,000, didn’t meet the cutoff for direct federal aid, missing out on at least $35 million in funding that could have been used to help residents weather unemployment and boost other safety net programs.
Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers said he was optimistic because the new administration seemed much more receptive to the notion that cities and counties need direct financial aid to have an impact on the pandemic, such as local rent assistance programs or grants to small businesses.
“We’re not talking about adding fluff to the budget,” Rogers said.
Gore was more guarded about the potential for direct payments.
“How hopeful am I?” Gore said. “I’d say 50/50.”
You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or email@example.com.