Millions of dollars in fire recovery assistance at stake in lawmakers’ spending plan

Rob Williams, left, a superintendent with Lake County Contractors, looks at building plans with plumber Tom Groff, right, as Jesse Merritt, center, carries a floor joist for installation as they rebuild a home on Kerry Lane in Coffey Park in Santa Rosa on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018. (BETH SCHLANKER/ PD)


Sonoma County officials remained hopeful Thursday that the spending plan that remained stalled in Congress, risking a federal government shutdown, would contain significant increases in wildfire recovery funding, including provisions requiring the government to pick up a larger share of the projected $700 million debris removal bill and a separate grant that could bring as much as $800 million for housing and infrastructure.

Both items were contained in the bipartisan Senate agreement to keep the government open after midnight. It was hitting snags in the House of Representatives over its failure to include protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children and in the Senate over increased spending limits. Any votes in the two chambers were expected to come late in the night.

The legislation includes an $89.3 billion emergency appropriation that would benefit regions under federal disaster declaration from Florida to Texas and including Northern California.

Among the key components is an agreement for the government to pay 90 percent of debris removal instead of 75 percent, reducing the share borne by the county and Santa Rosa from $23 million to $9 million each.

James Gore, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said the savings would allow the county to remain solvent as it grapples with the loss of millions in property taxes in the wake of devastating October wildfires that burned 137 square miles the county, destroyed 5,130 homes and killed 24 people.

“This is extremely important,” Gore said Thursday. “There are millions and millions of dollars on the table.”

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey also stressed the need for the government to pay a greater share of debris removal. He said the city’s finances would suffer for years trying to make up the $23 million, noting it’s already spent $13 million on other recovery costs and has lost $4.5 million in tax revenue.

However, Coursey feared the 90 percent guarantee was susceptible to change as the spending plan returns to the House for reconciliation.

“That’s a critical element for us,” Coursey said Thursday. “We are trying to make sure that 90 percent is in there and stays in there.”

Another provision, a Department of Housing and Urban Development fund, would devote $28 billion nationwide to repairing homes, rebuilding infrastructure and supporting local businesses while providing money for rental assistance for those using low-income rental vouchers.

Gore said it was unclear exactly how much Sonoma County would get for reconstruction but estimates range from $100 million to $800 million. Insured losses from the October fires across Northern California have grown to $10 billion, with the largest share in Sonoma County.

Gore said he would meet with officials from other counties next Thursday to figure out the details, such as whether some money could fund individual housing loans.

“The complexity of the disaster-industrial complex is freaking mind dumbing,” Gore said. “What we need just like anyone in a situation like this is clarity.”

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who was tracking the legislation Thursday amid the standoff, said: “I am pleased to see that the bipartisan Senate package includes nearly $90 billion in much-needed relief to assist our, and other impacted, disaster communities. … I will continue to fight to ensure our communities have all the resources they need.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or