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PD Editorial: Downtown Santa Rosa is the right spot for new county offices

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

Chances are no one ever lost an election by opposing a new government office building.

However, the time comes when it stops making economic sense to replace floors, move walls and lease more and more space for public agencies.

That time has arrived for Sonoma County, where supervisors started talking about a new administration building in the early 1990s. The county has been setting aside money for several years, and last summer the Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to buy the old Sears building and a parking garage at the Santa Rosa Plaza shopping mall as the site for new offices.

For the county, a move downtown promises modern offices, designed to meet climate protection standards, at a central location — near the junction of two freeways and walking distance from SMART.

But there’s more at stake than the county’s convenience.

From reunification of Old Courthouse Square to creating incentives for taller buildings, Santa Rosa city officials and local investors are committed to creating a vibrant urban core with housing, shopping, dining and arts. The county has partnered in efforts to facilitate residential development near transit and bringing county government back downtown will help achieve all those goals.

Ancillary benefits of a move aren’t limited to downtown Santa Rosa.

A thriving hub pays economic dividends for the entire region. And with most government agencies relocated, much of the county campus in north Santa Rosa could be sold for residential development near a supermarket and health care — addressing a top local priority while putting hundreds of acres back on the tax rolls, where they would generate millions of dollars annually for public services.

In addition, relocation plans envision satellite offices in northern, western and eastern Sonoma County where residents could access services without traveling to Santa Rosa. The county already has a satellite service center in Petaluma.

Yet when the plan came back to the board last week, two supervisors balked.

Supervisor David Rabbitt, who cast the lone no vote last summer, and Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who voted yes in July, expressed doubts about paying for the plan, which includes an 18-story office building, a creekfront chamber for the supervisors and parking.

This is a large public works project, so there’s nothing wrong with asking questions. But the county’s fiscal team has produced a credible plan to cover the estimated $42 million a year cost for construction, operation and maintenance of a new building.

The county already sets aside a fixed percentage of property tax dollars — an amount that’s set to from $9 million this year to about $13 million. The county will dedicate $7.5 million a year from expiring debt obligations, plus a share of hotel tax revenue and facilities money Washington and Sacramento pay the county for managing state and federal programs.

Altogether, Peter Bruland, a county budget officer, said identified funding mechanisms add up to $44 million a year. The extra $2 million is earmarked for the satellite service centers — a priority for Hopkins, who represents the west county.

Many buildings at the county campus are at or near the end of their functional lives, deferred maintenance is more than $300 million — about a third of the cost of relocating, and the county is spending $10 million a year to lease space elsewhere. New offices are needed and building them downtown makes environmental and economic sense for the entire county. When the relocation plan comes back on March 1, the supervisors should get on board.

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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