State budget channels millions to Sonoma County
Wildfire prevention, education and cannabis permitting in Sonoma County got financial boosts from the $262.6 billion budget approved by state lawmakers this week, with more still to come.
The state’s largesse came as revenue soared by more than 27%, the biggest year-over-year increase in more than four decades, fueling a $76 billion surplus. The revenue increase included billions in federal pandemic aid and stimulus funds.
The budget allocates $3.5 million toward fire prevention in Sonoma County, principally in the form of clearing wildfire fuel from the landscape.
Those funds are on tap for 11 projects constructing fuel breaks, thinning forest understory and other work in protected open spaces, regional parks and forest preserves around the county.
There will soon be “several millions (of) dollars” more reaching the county for that work, said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg.
Statewide, the Legislature is considering a $536 million budget for wildfire prevention, with around $380 million directed to vegetation management projects, McGuire and Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, both said.
Dodd helped secure $500,000 for a fuel reduction, defensible space and fuel break project in Sonoma Valley in conjunction with the Sonoma Valley Wildlands Collaborative, an association of conservation groups and land management agencies.
Dodd said in a news release he was “especially pleased to bring millions of dollars back to our district to shore up our fire suppression and drought response capabilities.”
The senator highlighted $7.6 million for fuel reduction, fire suppression and drinking water supply improvements in Napa County and another $3.4 million for Solano and Yolo counties.
Noting that the state had appropriated $1 billion overall for wildfire prevention, Dodd said the funding represented a “new normal” amid a changing climate that is greatly increasing wildfires in California.
The state’s skyrocketing economy generated a budget surplus that boosted public school funding — under a formula set in law — to nearly $94 billion statewide, up from $76 billion last year, said Steve Herrington, the Sonoma County schools superintendent.
Sonoma County will receive a $700 million boost — to $1.7 billion in state funding — for the system that serves 66,450 kindergarten to 12th grade students, with a 5% boost in the base rate for spending per student, he said.
Statewide spending per pupil will reach a “historic high” in spending at $21,000 per student, McGuire said.
“That is going to be one of the biggest lasting benefits of this budget now and in the years ahead,” he said.
Asked how the education windfall will be spent in Sonoma County, Herrington said that will be determined in a series of “trailer bills” to be enacted this week.
The principal budget bill that lawmakers have passed included a number of earmarks for Sonoma County and the North Bay with funds that will be accessible at the end of September.
A $16.5 million earmark to finish dissolving the North Coast Rail Authority in order to make way for the construction of the Great Redwood Trail, a biking and pedestrian trail along the Eel River in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, and a $20 million appropriation to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to finance affordable housing, are two of the biggest budget items for the North Bay.
The list also includes $1.1 million for Sonoma County to expedite the permitting process for legal cannabis businesses. Santa Rosa is slated to receive more than $775,000 for the same purpose.
Funds to local government for cannabis permitting demonstrate the Legislature’s commitment to follow through on voters’ choice to legalize cannabis by “expediting the legal market in California,” McGuire said.
Sonoma County supervisors in May sidelined a controversial measure aimed at easing the permit process for commercial cannabis cultivation, calling for an environmental review that will take at least one year. Rural residents remain adamantly opposed to streamlining the process that has allowed 184 permits since 2017.
The Legislature also agreed to provide money for a number of infrastructure projects, including $3 million for design work of a reconstruction of Highway 37, the bay front roadway connecting Novato to Vallejo that crosses southern Sonoma County.
The project, estimated to cost $260 million in total, would add a lane to the highway in each direction between Vallejo and the Highway 121 junction, said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority.
The county is also slated to receive $1 million for construction of the Roseland Library. Santa Rosa has already put $10 million away for the collaborative project, using money from a $95 million settlement with PG&E over the 2017 fires.
Santa Rosa will continue looking for money to fund “transportation projects and other types of capital investment projects that put people back to work,” Mayor Chris Rogers said.
City and county officials will be closely watching the distribution of $12 billion in homeless aid, which includes $1 billion in each of the next two years for direct payments to local governments.
The drought-challenged county water agency, meanwhile, is seeking about $24 million in research related to water supplies for the 600,000 Sonoma and Marin county residents it serves.
Grant Davis, general manager of Sonoma Water, said he is seeking $1.2 million for a feasibility study of rehabilitating three groundwater wells in the Santa Rosa Plain and $3 million for a study of the proposed Two Basin Solution that would include removal of the Scott Dam on the Eel River.
The water agency also hopes for final approval of up to $20 million for research on atmospheric rivers, an item that was part of the governor’s budget proposal.
The term refers to megastorms that deliver nearly half of California’s water and are at the heart of the North Coast's increasingly variable climate.
Sonoma Water partnered in a project that demonstrated high-tech forecasting of atmospheric rivers could improve management of the dam at Lake Mendocino near Ukiah.
You can reach Staff Writers Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or firstname.lastname@example.org and Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or email@example.com.