Close to Home: It’s time for a public bank in Santa Rosa

Santa Rosa's Measure N housing bond has been defeated. So the City Council's search for the resources to address our most pressing problems just got a lot harder.

The immense costs of post-fire rebuilding have made solving those issues - homelessness, affordable housing, roads and other infrastructure, school budgets, etc. - more problematic than ever. And Measure N's demise has made it clear that bonded indebtedness - the standard option for avoiding program cuts or new taxes - isn't going to bail us out.

It's time for a new approach.

For several years now, a group of local citizens called Friends of Public Banking Santa Rosa has been arguing before the City Council that a local public bank would save hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in fees and interest payments that currently are gobbled up by the private megabanks that hold city accounts. Those monies, kept here at home, would go a long way toward surmounting our housing and infrastructure challenges. Public banks exist to help the people meet their needs, not to maximize stockholder profit like privately owned banks.

Furthermore, if our city accounts were run through our own bank, we would no longer tacitly support the environmentally, ethically and financially unsound practices of Wells Fargo and JP Morgan Chase. We could adopt socially responsible banking criteria that profit-driven private banks cannot or will not observe.

The best existing American public bank model is the venerable Bank of North Dakota, which was founded in 1919 and has been remarkably successful ever since.

A “wholesale bank,” the Bank of North Dakota partners with local banks and credit unions to provide low-interest credit for infrastructure, agriculture, small business and student loans, while simultaneously turning a healthy profit.

In Germany, a network of over 400 publicly owned municipal and regional banks known as “Sparkassen” has funded that country's exemplary progress toward a fully renewable energy grid. Globally, an estimated 40 percent of all banks are publicly owned.

As these examples show, public bank feasibility is well established. Even so, persuading the electorate to support a fundamental change in our city's banking habits will take a lot of public education. We hope the Santa Rosa City Council, faced with Measure N's failure, will join actively in that effort.

The city has made a good start. To their great credit, Chief Financial Officer Chuck McBride and Alan Alton, the deputy director of finance, have researched the public bank concept with care and open-mindedness, reflected in their report to the city's long-term financial policy and audit subcommittee.

The council has voted to accept the committee's recommendation to postpone any further action until publication of the public-bank business plans now being prepared in Oakland/East Bay and Los Angeles. We are encouraged by the finance subcommittee's willingness to continue the discussion. The failure of Measure N will surely provide new impetus to the council's deliberations.

Much public-bank talk has revolved around the potential for accommodating the banking needs of the burgeoning cannabis industry. This application of the public bank concept is now being addressed at the state level, as part of the full-scale feasibility study commissioned by state Treasurer John Chiang. The report is due out in December. We look forward to seeing how its findings might dovetail with our own municipal initiative.

The time has come for Santa Rosa to join the shift toward public banking. The benefits wouldn't be immediate, because it would take a few years to develop the envisioned bank responsibly. But even the decision to embark on that path would lay a foundation of much-needed hope for our financial future.

We urge the City Council to authorize the empaneling of a group of experts to prepare a feasibility/implementation study at the earliest possible date. We literally cannot afford to wait any longer.

Philip Beard and Debora Hammond are emeritus faculty members at Sonoma State University and members of the Friends of Public Banking Santa Rosa Task Force.

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