Sonoma County officials join lobbying trip to push for 2017 fire aid

Elected officials and private-sector leaders from Sonoma County are headed to Washington, D.C., next week to lobby the federal government for continued help recovering from last year’s devastating wildfires.

The group is expected to meet with the administrators from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which recently awarded $212 million to help California respond to the 2017 fires and prevent future ones. Also on the agenda are meetings with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and several key lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt and Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey, along with other city and county officials, will join several staff and board members from the Rebuild Northbay Foundation, which is organizing the three-day trip that starts Tuesday. Napa County Supervisor Belia Ramos is scheduled to attend as well.

Jennifer Gray Thompson, the executive director of the rebuild foundation, said the lobbying trip was born out of lessons learned from leaders in other parts of the country that have endured major natural disasters.

“What they said is, it’s really important to continue to have a face-to-face presence in D.C.,” she said. “You cannot allow your community to get lost. The more you go and the more contact you have and really explain the complexities of post-disaster recovery and rebuilding and continue to advocate for your community is one of the most impactful things you can do.”

Rebuild Northbay was founded by Sonoma-based lobbyist and developer Darius Anderson, who is managing member of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat. Anderson is among those going on the Washington trip, along with a few of the nonprofit’s board members. Also participating is Steve Falk, CEO of Sonoma Media Investments.

The bulk of the meetings are scheduled for Wednesday, when the delegation plans to meet with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Rep. Mike Thompson, Rep. Jeff Denham and representatives from HUD, FEMA and the office of Sen. Kamala Harris.

Rebuild Northbay staff and board members went on a similar trip to Washington in January, when they were lobbying the federal government to cover a greater share of the debris removal costs, Jennifer Gray Thompson said. Federal officials did ultimately agree to pay 90 percent of the wildfire cleanup bill, up from the ?75 percent originally planned.

But next week’s trip carries extra weight because of the addition of local government officials.

“You go into certain offices, if you have an elected official, even at a local level, you’ll get a little different audience,” Rabbitt said. “To have that face to face is really important.”

Of the $212 million HUD awarded to help California recover from last year’s fires, about $124 million was set aside to cover unmet needs in fire-affected areas and about $88 million was reserved for mitigating future impacts. Sonoma County still doesn’t know exactly how large a share it will receive of the $124 million, which will be distributed by the state.

“We think the state has the best of intentions, and we hope to work closely with them, but at the end of the day, we think it’s really important for HUD to hear directly from us about what our needs are,” said Burbank Housing CEO Larry Florin, who’s headed on the trip and serves on the board of the Rebuild foundation.

The lobbying effort also is intended to show the federal government that the public and private sectors are a united front in the aftermath of California’s most devastating wildfires last fall, which in the North Bay destroyed about ?6,200 homes and killed ?40 people.

“I believe our job in the private sector is … to know that we’re talking to the right people and we’re asking the right questions, to come back and let people know they should think positive - that there is hope,” said Henry Hansel, president of Hansel Auto Group and another board member of the rebuild foundation. “The first part was just simply recovery, it was just simply trying to hold our own. Now we’re finally on the Rebuild side.”

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