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Sonoma County’s financial outlook bright

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The financial outlook for Sonoma County government, clouded just three years ago in the fallout from a historic recession, appears to be brighter than it has been in more than a decade, with tax revenue up more than 6 percent from last year, tourism at an all-time high and an unemployment rate lower than the state and national averages.

With a $1.46 billion budget bolstered by higher revenue from property, sales and hotel bed taxes, plus increases in state and federal funding, Sonoma County supervisors are poised to confront a host of new and long-postponed expenditures, including on roads, education and affordable housing projects.

At the same time, county officials say they’re looking to hold the line on payroll costs, though those expenses have jumped nearly 19 percent in the past four years as the county added more than 400 new positions across more than two dozen departments.

The fiscal rebound marks an opportunity to reassess where and how the county spends taxpayer money, supervisors said.

“This is a breath of fresh air,” said Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin. “Now we are focusing on our desperately needed priorities.”

Gorin this week was preparing remarks she was set to deliver today at the annual State of the County address. She planned to highlight county projects and accomplishments over the past year, including a continued boost in spending on road upkeep, funding a slate of homelessness programs and opening up nearly 1,500 acres of county open space for public access.

Going forward, county officials voiced a hope to steer money toward key programs, instead of simply backfilling positions and budgets slashed during the recession. On that initial list of priorities are proposals to fund universal preschool, build new affordable housing and improve access to health care.

“This is a direction Sonoma County is very consciously taking, by strategically targeting our investments,” Gorin said. “We are not about building up a large county organization.”

Nevertheless, county staffing has rebounded, with 4,187 total employees today — up 33 percent from 2011 after the county had cut its workforce by more than 500 filled and unfilled positions. Total spending on employee salaries and benefits was more than $550 million this year, up from $464 million in 2011.

With the additional tax revenue, this year’s budget grew 7.4 percent over last year’s. The current spending plan is up more than 20 percent from 2011 — the height of the economic downturn for county government.

Property tax revenue, the main source of county discretionary funding, shot up in 2014, with the county’s overall tax assessment roll valued at $71.7 billion — more than a 7 percent annual increase, the largest since the financial collapse. The county’s portion of the property tax revenues came in at $193.2 million in 2014, up 5.3 percent from the previous year, according to county financial reports.

Revenue from hotel bed taxes also has increased. The latest calendar year numbers, from 2013, climbed 13 percent from the previous year’s, for a total of $27 million in annual revenue. The rise continued during the first six months of 2014. Hotel occupancy rates are up more than 6 percent compared to this time last year, an economic indicator of tourism, county officials said.

County officials also have pointed to Sonoma County’s job growth rate of 1.1 percent between August 2013 and August 2014, and an unemployment rate of 5.1 percent — lower than the state average of 7.1 percent and the national average of 5.8 percent.

The county also has received more state funding to help with the shift of inmates from prisons to county jails. The Affordable Care Act has led to an influx of federal funding tied to expansion of Medi-Cal, the state’s low-income health care program.

“This is the best we’ve ever done,” Gorin said.

Still, the county has significant chronic gaps to close in its safety net and needs to repair crumbling infrastructure, including its 1,382-mile road network.

Thousands of people in the county are waiting for Medi-Cal benefits and for other public assistance programs such as CalFresh, the state-funded food assistance. Hundreds of miles of road throughout the county have fallen into disrepair; the county’s voting machines are 30 years old; and hundreds of Sonoma County families are at risk of becoming homeless.

Supervisors Shirlee Zane and Efren Carrillo, the county’s current veteran board members who took office at the outset of a grim fiscal period for the county, said as the economy bounces back, budget and staffing cuts they made during the downturn have changed the way the county delivers services.

“The budget discussions we were having when I came into office in 2009 were incredibly depressing — we were cutting left and right,” Zane said. “But today we have an opportunity to be more innovative, and leaner, with our budgeting.”

Zane said as Sonoma County’s financial outlook improves, the county should not simply fill positions that were previously eliminated, or fund departmental budgets to pre-recession levels.

“Efren and I lived through that history, and we’ve felt strongly that we don’t necessarily want to go back to that old paradigm,” Zane said. “There are some big lessons we’ve learned.”

Zane and Carrillo said the county should focus on economic disparities highlighted in a report released last May. It found sharp contrasts in health, income and education levels throughout the county’s 99 census tracts.

In part of Bennett Valley, for example, median annual earnings came in at $69,000 per year, with an average life expectancy of 82 years and education levels at a bachelor’s degree or higher.

In Roseland, by contrast, median earnings were significantly lower, at $21,699 per year. Life expectancy averages came in at 77.1 years, and education levels ranked at high school and below.

“The Portrait of Sonoma County has helped us focus on programs that I consider vital for the long-term prosperity of everyone in this county,” Carrillo said.

Zane and Carrillo share several top priorities, including universal preschool, homelessness services and funding new affordable housing projects.

Supervisors also highlighted the county’s previously stated priorities of increasing access to county open space, adapting to climate change and future water shortages, and implementing recommendations of the Community and Law Enforcement Task Force, created in the wake of the shooting death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy.

Later this month, the board will get a chance to assess the county’s new fiscal outlook and adopt new budget priorities going into the next year at a daylong budget retreat.

“With the economic recovery, there is going to be a strong temptation to increase spending,” Carrillo said. “But I think we also have to look at growing our financial reserves.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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