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During their first day of budget hearings Monday, Sonoma County supervisors pushed beyond their proposed $1.45 billion spending plan for additional funding to pay for medical equipment at Rohnert Park’s new health clinic, senior housing programs, legal aid services for low-income people and road maintenance along the county’s crumbling 1,384-mile network.

Near the end of what amounted to more than eight hours of deliberations on the proposed 2015-16 budget, Supervisor Shirlee Zane floated one of the more notable spending proposals of the day: Boosting the county’s current $11.2 million annual investment on roads by more than $8.5 million.

“It is frustrating; we want to fund as many roads as we can,” Zane said, while asking her fellow Board of Supervisors colleagues to join her in advocating to spend roughly half of the county’s delinquent property tax revenue set aside in a reserve account. “Why can’t we spend it?”

Zane’s idea was met with lukewarm support, with other supervisors voicing strong support for additional spending on roads, yet articulating no clear idea for where new money would come from.

“We heard our community loudly and clearly — roads are a priority,” said Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin, as she acknowledged this month’s ballot-box defeat of Measure A, a proposed quarter-cent sales tax increase that supervisors said they intended to spend primarily on road fixes. “We’re going to focus on them in the near-term.”

County Administrator Veronica Ferguson directed staff to identify potential funding mechanisms to boost funding for roads, leaving the dollar amount blank for now.

Supervisor James Gore said the board must look for more money, yet he did not outright call for more money from a specific source.

“We can’t kick the can down the road any longer because it’ll fall in a pothole,” Gore said, reciting popular rhetoric he used last year during his campaign for supervisor.

He said the county could look at private financing to pay for road repairs or perhaps tax revenue from hotel bed taxes.

Zane’s idea appeared to garner the most support from Supervisor David Rabbitt, who lobbied heavily in favor of Measure A and became the voice of the campaign.

“We need to make sure we look under every rock and assign dollars to pavement preservation,” Rabbitt said. “We have to figure out what we’re doing long-term.”

Craig Harrison, co-founder of Save our Sonoma Roads, was the sole member of the meager audience to speak about the state of the county’s roads and the message voters sent in rejecting Measure A.

“They didn’t trust this board that they’d spend the money on roads ... they said we don’t really need the tax because there’s enough money,” Harrison said. “There is a certain point they were making — that we’re having a good year. We need to look for more money.”

Supervisors spent most of the day Monday reviewing the county’s spending plan, which for the first time was outlined for the next two budget cycles. The current fiscal year ends June 30.

Next year’s budget proposes a 2 percent pay increase for all county employees, which would cost roughly $8.6 million per year. The budget also includes new staffing for health and human services, law enforcement and parks, and technology upgrades to the county’s financial system, the voting system and the Permit and Resource Management Department.

Overall, proposed county spending would drop 2 percent from the current year — a decrease associated with the outsourcing of county landfill operations to Arizona-based Republic Services and the shift of Sonoma County’s library system last year to an independent agency with budget authority. Without those changes, the proposed budget would be 3 percent higher than the current year.

“We believe this budget represents fiscal responsibility,” Ferguson said. “Yet we need to continually focus on the fiscal health of this county.”

If approved, money in the budget would also be set aside for other board priorities, including affordable housing, creating an independent auditor’s office overseeing law enforcement and recruiting new staff for the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff Steve Freitas underscored the importance of boosting his department’s funding, proposed at $158.9 million for next year. He said over the past two years, his department has hired about 115 people, but 115 people have also left. He said at present, there are around 100 openings.

“I’m concerned we’re going to be able to meet our goals when we have so much difficulty recruiting and retaining (officers),” Frietas said.

Supervisors also endorsed allocating an additional $20 million for various county departments, including fire protection, probation, animal services and PRMD.

Officials noted the county budget is in better shape than it was just a few years ago.

“This is something to celebrate,” Zane said. “Back in 2009, we had to make such draconian cuts.”

The $423 million general fund has grown 1 percent over the past year, largely due to an influx of tax revenue, which is up 3 percent. County officials attributed the increase in revenue to higher property values and tourism associated with the rebounding economy.

Budget discussions continuing Tuesday are expected to focus on the county’s rising pension costs. A final vote on the budget is expected to come by Wednesday.

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

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