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Sonoma County to tap PG&E settlement funds, avert layoffs in latest budget deal

Sonoma County supervisors signaled Wednesday their intent to tap millions of dollars in PG&E wildfire settlement money to avert layoffs and balance the county’s $1.9 billion budget, a move that some county officials worry could simply postpone difficult financial decisions.

The push by supervisors to allocate up to $24.6 million of the $149 million PG&E settlement stemming from the 2017 wildfires would shore up critical funding for the Sheriff’s Office, sustain mental health and homeless services and boost staffing levels at the county’s law enforcement oversight agency.

But it also would shortchange public discussions planned for October on how to use the balance of PG&E settlement money, viewed by some as having a special purpose aligned with wildfire prevention and recovery in the wake of 2017 wildfires, which killed 24 people in Sonoma County and destroyed more than 5,300 homes.

“Those kind of dollars don’t come to a jurisdiction but probably, hopefully, once in a lifetime,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt. “I don’t want a future generation to look back and say, ‘What happened to those dollars? How are we more resilient because of those dollars?’”

Rabbitt eventually endorsed the board’s spending plan, which would also tap about $16.4 million from other discretionary one- funds to help backfill some cuts proposed by departments, eliminating the need for any layoffs. The board also agreed to spend nearly $7 million on a list of priority programs and initiatives, including $2 million tied to the purchase of two hotels to house homeless residents.

Although more than $16 million in budget cuts are still on the table, none are tied to layoffs, something supervisors celebrated after facing the prospect of more than 100 job cuts amid a daunting $47 million deficit earlier this year.

The deal, which is up for an official vote at noon Friday, spares high-profile cuts to the Sheriff’s Office, which stood to lose its helicopter program, Henry 1, and staffing at two substations.

Though he put forward those cuts, Sheriff Mark Essick has protested reductions in his budget, taking last month to the department’s Facebook page, where he called out the impacts on public safety of about $7 million in general fund revenue losses for the Sheriff’s Office. General fund cuts also were requested from agencies countywide.

The prospect of a showdown between the board and sheriff had been building for months, and some county observers regarded Essick’s move as smart politics, putting forward high-profile services ― the helicopter and substations in Guerneville and Sonoma ― that would generate pressure on the board.

By supervisors’ own accounts, that public feedback came in swift and strong in favor saving the Sheriff’s Office programs and up to 15 related jobs. No other department saw a bigger budget restoration this week.

But there was a catch: Supervisor Lynda Hopkins persuaded her fellow board members to limit funding for the helicopter to two years, and to use the interval to fashion a plan that would turn it over to the Sonoma County Fire Protection District, which serves a widening area of the county north, south and west of Santa Rosa.

“When I talk with constituents and fire districts, they focus on Henry 1’s mission as a rescue helicopter, and its use in firefighting,” Hopkins said. “This would be Henry 1’s highest and best use.”

Essick, who has sparred with supervisors in recent months over pandemic health orders and legal matters concerning oversight of his office, voiced concern in his board appearance Wednesday about “significant legal hurdles” involved with using Henry 1 exclusively for emergency medical and fire services and other purposes, but said he was “excited” to look at the possibilities.

“I’m certainly interested in this discussion,” he said, before adding that just 17 of the chopper’s 800 missions last year were fire related. “It’s something we could explore, and I’m willing to participate.”

Supervisors quickly signed onto Hopkins’ plan, even if they had reservations about the ultimate outcome. Most sought to strike a friendlier tone with the sheriff.

Supervisor James Gore said the department’s expenditure plan all looked “pretty essential“ to him. Hopkins, who criticized Essick for “posturing” over the cuts last month, sought a better working relationship.

“I guess my question is how can we collaborate better going forward about shared priorities?” Hopkins said.

The county’s deficit is driven mostly by rising payroll costs and plunging tax revenues amid the recession triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.

State and federal stimulus funding, some rebound in projected revenue and departmental savings, combined with use of some of the PG&E settlement money, spared the board from having to order layoffs and sustained several initiatives prized by supervisors.

They expanded the work of the mobile support team deployed on mental health calls as an alternative to law enforcement.

“We’ve had tragic deaths of people who have been in mental health breaks, called 911 and ended in tragedy,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, referring to a string of fatal incidents involving sheriff’s deputies. “This is the time in our history to step up. I’m willing to throw a lot of money behind this, and make it the model that the rest of the United States follows.”

Supervisors agreed Wednesday to hire two additional lawyers over at least the next three years to bolster the small staff at the county’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Oversight, which serves as a watchdog over the Sheriff’s Office. Separately last month, the board also advanced to the November ballot a measure that would expand the law enforcement auditor’s scope and budget.

The spending moves did not come without some trepidation.

Rabbitt, who was most averse to tapping the PG&E settlement money to fill the present shortfall, wondered about the hole the board would confront years from now. Deficits as high as $30 million are projected over each of the next five years.

County Administrator Sheryl Bratton promised a clearer answer on that outlook by Friday.

Supervisor Susan Gorin, the board chair, who has been without power for two days amid a planned PG&E outage to prevent more utility-sparked wildfires ― like the Nuns fire that destroyed her home three years ago ― had her own ideas.

“I figure future years are a crapshoot,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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