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Sonoma County government, cities in line for $160 million in federal aid under new stimulus bill

Under legislation pushed by President Joe Biden and passed by Congress Wednesday, local governments in Sonoma County are slated to receive about $160 million in federal stimulus aid to shore up public coffers amid economic wreckage from the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden, who hailed the bill’s advance as a “historic victory,” signed the bill into law Thursday before a national address to mark the year anniversary of the start of the pandemic in the United States.

Sonoma County is set to receive an estimated $96 million from the legislation, followed by Santa Rosa, Sonoma County’s largest city, which is line for a little more than $36 million, according to a chart posted online by the Democratic caucus of the U.S. Senate.

It’s estimated Petaluma will receive $8.75 million and Rohnert Park just over $8 million. Windsor should receive $5 million, Healdsburg $2.2 million and Cotati $1.4 million.

“Californians have been struggling for over a year in the face of this once in a century pandemic and economic collapse,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said in a Wednesday afternoon statement. The relief package “is what we need to beat COVID, safely reopen schools, deliver relief, and ensure an equitable recovery for everyone,” Huffman said.

The bill passed with unified support from Democrats — including Sonoma County’s other congressman, Mike Thompson of St. Helena — but without any Republicans voting in its favor.

Biden, touting the biggest legislative achievement of his still-young presidency, said help was now on the way to struggling Americans, though some political observers have warned the sprawling relief package’s more complex elements could take time to implement.

The sums headed to Sonoma County represent the first direct distribution of federal aid money to government coffers here since COVID-19 began sickening and killing North Bay residents and throttling the local economy. The long-sought relief was welcome to local officials seeking to plug gaps in budgets battered by plummeting sales and lodging tax dollars.

The aid is “a big deal,” for Healdsburg with its tourism-based economy, said Jeff Kay, the city manager.

“Our revenues have really taken a massive hit,” Kay said.

Biden’s American Rescue Plan includes $350 billion for state, local and tribal governments, part of the larger $1.9 trillion package meant to support individuals and families, school districts, industries, public health programs and tenants, to name just a few of the beneficiaries.

The bill includes $130 billion for primary and secondary schools, $45 billion for rental, utility and mortgage payment assistance, small business grants and a range of other relief programs. It provides $1,400 stimulus payments for individual adults making less than $75,000 a year and couples making under $150,000. The government will distribute another $1,400 per child to parents with children who are dependents.

The package extends a $300-a-week federal unemployment payment, and an additional payment to cover needs for children of jobless individuals. Those supplementary payments have been extended to at least September.

It is the third federal relief package since the pandemic began, but the first to send money directly to local governments in Sonoma County, which missed out on previous disbursements due to the region not qualifying under minimum population thresholds.

As the pandemic continues, the aid is “very much welcome,” Sonoma County Administrator Sheryl Bratton said.

County officials were devastated when the first federal relief package last spring unleashed $2.2 trillion in aid but capped distributions to county governments with more than 500,000 people. The county was over that population threshold as recently as 2017, but has lost ground since then in part from people leaving in the face of a series of catastrophic wildfires.

Sonoma County and city governments still received assistance from that program, the CARES Act, but did so through the state or specific federal programs like housing and money for COVID-19 testing. Those dollars didn’t even come close to filling the need, county officials said.

Sonoma County received $50.2 million in CARES dollars through the state, Bratton said.

“It’s like every disaster where you get reimbursed and you get these dollars to cover the expenses,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, “but you realize along the way that everything costs you more.”

While the county and Santa Rosa have spent millions of dollars to respond to the pandemic, officials also estimated they’ve taken in less revenue — equating to a combined $130 million in losses and unforeseen expenses between the two jurisdictions, according to the county and city.

After the CARES Act last spring, a politically divided Congress didn’t pass another relief package until December. That $900 billion package did not include any direct payments for state and local governments.

“Finally — after months of Republican obstruction and political gameplay — we have passed relief that actually meets the urgency of this moment and is on its way to be signed into law,” Huffman said in his statement.

Republicans opposing the measure called it a wish list of Democratic priorities. “This isn’t a rescue bill, it isn’t a relief bill,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, according to the New York Times. “It’s a laundry list of left-wing priorities that predate the pandemic.”

Virus response still costly

Sonoma County also is expecting $17 million from a state relief package to assist with virus testing, contact tracing and vaccine distribution, Bratton said. That money also will be welcome, she said, as county health officials have predicted they’ll need $40 million to continue the wide range of health and economic programs that make up the local pandemic response.

The county hasn’t identified funding streams to maintain that response after July 1, Bratton said.

While officials are still waiting for guidance and rules from the U.S. Treasury Department on how the new stimulus money can be spent, the bill’s language and early indications from the region’s congressional delegation are encouraging.

“It’s a little more flexible but I think from the county’s perspective they’re never flexible enough,” Rabbitt said. “The needs are different everywhere and the approaches are slightly different.”

Santa Rosa is looking for direction from the City Council and the public on how to spend the incoming aid, city officials said.

Local allocations are unlikely to begin before the money is received. It wasn’t clear if the money would come in one deposit or several, a few county and city officials said.

But after months without substantive assistance, leaders in local government say the need within their communities is urgent.

Rohnert Park Mayor Gerard Giudice said he was thinking about struggling small business owners and residents, many Latino, who bore the brunt of the pandemic’s devastation.

“If you’re asking me for where my heart goes in advance of starting these discussions … my heart goes to those communities, those disadvantaged communities in Rohnert Park,“ Giudice said.

Petaluma had seen around $4.7 million in revenue losses, said Brian Cochran, the assistant city manager. It spent an additional $1 million or so safeguarding city buildings and staff against the virus and distributing $250,000 to struggling area businesses.

To offset those fiscal blows, the city received just $500,000 through a federal economic development program, Cochran said. The city spent $450,000 of that on rental assistance for low-income residents, he said. Through the state’s distribution of CARES Act money, the city received just $750,000.

The $8.75 million Petaluma is slated to receive should exceed its revenue losses. After a year of community hardship and economic devastation, there is no shortage of ways to spend the extra money, Cochran said.

“After making sure our revenue funds are sustainable, than we probably want to distribute this money to make sure that we’re taking care of people that were hurt by the pandemic,” he said.

Campaigning for the package in Congress and in the public arena, Biden, members of his administration and Democratic lawmakers argued it was important to overspend and not fall short. The president rejected Republican overtures to negotiate a much smaller stimulus package.

His team has cited hard lessons learned during the past recession in 2008, when they say federal stimulus fell short and drove waves of layoffs in local governments.

“It was a profound error,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told municipal leaders from the National League of Cities on Tuesday. “Insufficient relief meant that cities had to slash spending, and that austerity undermined the broader recovery,” she said, according to her prepared statement.

Yellen promised a quick delivery of the new stimulus money once the bill was signed. Distribution of the funds to cities, towns and county governments should begin within 60 days of the legislation passing, according to a spokesperson for Rep. Mike Thompson.

Stimulus by the numbers

The American Rescue Plan Act includes $350 billion for county and city governments. The estimated amounts headed for Sonoma County governments are as below:

Sonoma County: $96 million

Santa Rosa: $36 million

Petaluma: $8.75 million

Rohnert Park: just over $8 million

Windsor: $5 million

Healdsburg: $2.2 million

Sonoma: Just over $2 million

Sebastopol: $1.4 million

Cotati: $1.4 million

Other significant funding in the bill:

— $130 billion for primary and secondary schools

—$45 billion for rental, utility and mortgage assistance

— Direct payments of $1,400 to Americans making less than $75,000 and couples making less than $150,000

— Small business grants, increased unemployment benefits

Staff Writer Will Schmitt contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been revised to note that President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan in to law on Thursday, March 11, one day earlier than expected.

Andrew Graham

Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat 

I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.

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