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PD Editorial: An alarming decline in Sonoma County’s population

Sonoma County lost something even more vital than housing to the 2017 wildfires. We said goodbye to about 3,300 neighbors.

That, according to a new U.S. Census Bureau report, is how many people moved away in the year following the Tubbs and Nuns fires. The census pegs the population decline as 50% more than a previous calculation by the state Department of Finance.

These numbers are more than a curiosity. They reflect a dysfunctional housing market as well as the obstacles and costs of rebuilding after the fires. They foretell looming challenges for local employers and for public programs whose funding is linked to population, among them highways, housing assistance, education and health care. And, as Supervisor David Rabbitt noted, a decline in population can portend a loss of diversity in the community.

“Either story is one of migration away from Sonoma County and a harbinger of how places like Butte County may be seeing its population change for 2018,” Sonoma State University economics professor Robert Eyler told Staff Writer Martin Espinoza.

The drop in population also underscores the importance of assuring a complete and accurate count next year in the decennial U.S. census, as those results will determine funding levels for myriad public programs in the coming decade.

Over the 18 months since the fires, we have heard from many ex-Sonoma County residents who hadn't planned to relocate but decided after losing their homes that it would be easier, and in many cases much less expensive, to start over somewhere else.

Meanwhile, hundreds of new homes are going up in Santa Rosa's Coffey Park, where about 40% of pre-fire residents were renters. With substantially higher rents for the new houses, many long-time residents are being priced out of the neighborhood.

“I don't think you're going to see the same families coming back,” Sarah Giometti, a volunteer with the neighborhood support group Coffey Strong, said recently. “Coffey Park is going to lose some of the character that people liked about it.”

“How can our economy continue to function if working-class people can't afford to live here?” asked Tricia Woods, a Coffey Strong board member.

Public schools already were coping with declining enrollment before the fires, but the pace has increased. The number of students in Santa Rosa public schools fell from 16,400 in the 2016-17 school year to 15, 400 this year, with a projected loss of 300 more students next year and at least 500 more by 2020-21. The trend was a factor in the decision not to rebuild the Hidden Valley Satellite School, the only local school that burned in the 2017 fire.

The state agreed to protect Sonoma County school districts from reductions in enrollment-based funding for two years after the fires. But the reprieve ends next year.

The 2020 census, which is now less than 12 months away, is always important for every community. It's never been more important here.

For now, the upcoming census is caught up in controversy over the Trump administration's ill-advised plan to risk an undercount by asking about people's citizenship - an issue argued Tuesday at the U.S. Supreme Court. However that plays out, it will be crucial to raise public awareness to guarantee an accurate count in Sonoma County and across the country.

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