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Sonoma County set to approve ’guiding document’ for five years

Confronting homelessness, bolstering mental health treatment, improving racial equity and hardening the county's infrastructure against climate disasters will dominate the Sonoma County government’s agenda for the next five years, according to a nearly complete plan.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is set to approve the final version of the five-year strategic plan on Tuesday, after a monthslong drafting process that included input from county employees, residents and various municipal officials. Though in at least one case, a leading county supervisor, said, the efforts at generating community input fell short.

Overall, the plan mixes concrete objectives for confronting the county’s problems with lofty aims. In some cases, the strategy to confront a pressing problem remains for now to actually develop a strategy. But overall, the plan aims to align the county’s budgets and operations with its long-range and shorter-term goals. The document ensures the county’s near-term vision will outlast those crafting it, District 5 supervisor and board chair Lynda Hopkins said.

“County officials come and go, staff change,“ Hopkins said. “It’s critical to have a guiding document and an affirmation of our county’s values.”

Among the plan’s guiding principles are a commitment to distributing government services equally across the county and working with city officials and community “stakeholders.”

Housing and homelessness

To approach a pressing county woe like homelessness, for example, the strategy calls for crafting a long-term plan, in partnership with cities, by 2023. A more specific goal is to reduce the county’s homeless population by 10% each year.

The county wants to rezone 59 urban sites for affordable housing development. The county government should partner with developers to “break ground on as many sites as possible by 2026,” the plan says.

The plan calls for more investment in de-escalation and “cultural responsiveness” training for the sheriff’s department. It directs the Department of Health Services and other agencies to determine “the most appropriate community response" for people experiencing a psychiatric emergency. City and state governments around the country, including in Santa Rosa, are experimenting with new ways to respond to such crises that lessen the role of law enforcement officers largely untrained in mental health response.

The county will have an estimated $25 million more a year to invest in mental health and substance abuse treatment, following voters’ approval of a new tax to raise such funding in November.

Equity

The Board of Supervisors hopes to “institutionalize equity” over the next five years as well, according to the plan. “Sonoma County’s collective well-being and prosperity are impacted by significant racial inequities,” the plan says. In 2020 Sonoma County established an Office of Equity and officials selected attorney Alegría De La Cruz as its first director.

Sonoma County created the office amid last year’s national and local protests against racial injustice and police brutality. De La Cruz’s office is listed as the lead on a number of goals that include a racial equity learning program for county leadership and staff. Objectives include enhancing the hiring and promoting of more people of color throughout the county workforce and ensuring racial equity in the deliverance of government services.

Even in crafting the plan, however, the county didn’t receive the input from minority communities it needed, Hopkins said. “We struggled to meaningfully engage the Latinx community,“ she said. ”We just didn’t have much community participation.“

Improving the county’s performance in that area is critical going forward, Hopkins said, especially amid a pandemic where health and economic impacts have landed disproportionally on minority and low-income communities, Hopkins said.

“For so long in Sonoma County we have seen the gaps between the haves and the have-nots,” Hopkins said, “and it’s been ignored by government leaders for decades.”

As the region increasingly faces the ravages of climate change, Hopkins worried that without careful planning those gaps between groups would only grow. “Climate is exacerbating the differences in our community,” she said.

Infrastructure

The plan includes a number of goals for reducing the county’s impact on climate change by leaning on renewable energy for county buildings and reducing carbon emissions from the county fleet. On the flip side, it has a number of significant steps to better prepare the county for coming natural disasters.

In a world where electricity blackouts could increase both to prevent wildfires or because of natural disasters, the county wants to quickly increase its energy grid resilience. In particular, the county veterans buildings that are used as evacuation, shelter and health care sites during disasters need to be able to power themselves independently and for extended periods of time, general services department director Caroline Judy said. The county has already been adding backup diesel generators to those buildings using funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Judy’s department is pursuing more funding to build even more extended, independent power supplies through solar panels and battery capability, she said. Judy envisioned a disaster like a major earthquake in the region that made diesel hard to come by. The county wants to build microgrids — with generating sources and battery storage that can disconnect from the larger grid and power itself — at many of its facilities, including the long-talked-about county center.

The plan also calls for more investment in wildfire mitigation. To read the latest and likely final draft of the plan, visit the board of supervisor’s March 2 agenda.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of Caroline Judy, the Sonoma County general services department director.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

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