PD Editorial: A refreshing outlook for county

At Thursday's Sonoma County outlook presentation, Economist Jerry Nickelsburg's speech sounded like the lyrics of a certain Beatles tune: Yes, we’ve got to admit it’s getting better. A little better all the time.|

Economist Jerry Nickelsburg began his annual Sonoma County outlook presentation Thursday with a quote from an Eagles’ song, but his remarks sounded much more like the lyrics of a certain Beatles tune.

Yes, we’ve got to admit it’s getting better. A little better all the time.

The news already was optimistic going into the annual State of the County breakfast at the Rohnert Park Doubletree hotel with reports that county tax revenue is up more than 6 percent from last year, tourism is hitting new highs and the local unemployment rate has dropped to 5.1 percent, the fifth lowest of the 58 counties in the state.

Remarks by Nickelsburg, senior economist from the UCLA Anderson Forecast, only bolstered spirits more. The “huge foreclosure mess is pretty much behind us,” he said. More than that, he said, the recession is pretty much in the past. Consumers are spending again. Real estate prices are growing steadily, and the Bay Area has recovered all of the jobs lost in the Great Recession and then some. He predicted the unemployment rate in Sonoma County could drop to around 4 percent by 2016.

For the state, Nickelsburg is forecasting that the unemployment rate will drop from 7.5 percent to 5.6 percent by 2016, personal income will grow 3 to 4 percent a year, and employment will grow 2.2 percent a year.

Even with the slowdown in China and political unrest in many parts of the world, there’s no signs of an impending downturn locally. The recent drop in oil prices has been a multi-billion-dollar boon for consumers, “a stimulus package that didn’t require congressional approval,” he said.

Nevertheless, challenges are ahead of the state and county. California continues to be a tale of two states, he said, with coastal regions experiencing strong growth, driven largely by technology- and energy-based industries, while inland areas are still languishing in a pre-recovery economy.

As Susan Gorin, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors, noted in her State of the County remarks, a new housing crisis has emerged locally with rents rising more than 30 percent in some areas. The county also has a significant backlog in road repair work - a need that the county hopes to address in a tax measure on the June ballot - while it also still faces a significant population of homeless. As Nickelsburg said, the numbers for the nation’s long-term unemployed population are improving. But “it’s not because they are getting jobs,” Nickelsburg said. “They are dropping out of the labor market.”

As identified in the data contained in the Portrait of Sonoma County released by the county last year, Gorin said, “We are a bifurcated community of haves and have nots.”

And while employment continue to grow in Sonoma County, not all jobs are alike. The challenge for Sonoma County will be to grow in jobs that provide sustainable incomes for families.

Overall, the county’s revenue is up more than 20 percent from 2011. That’s more good news. But the burden falls to county supervisors - and city managers and elected officials in cities that face similar rosy financial outlooks - to resist falling back on old spending habits and, instead, invest in programs that cultivate the growth of high-paying jobs, build infrastructure and develop the public-private partnerships needed to address the gaps that still exist in how families are faring. Many may hear that, for Sonoma County as a whole, the Great Recession is a thing of the past. But they aren’t living it.

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