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Sonoma County - Update on NOW - 2015 State of the County

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Sonoma County - Update on NOW
2015 State of the County

By Efren Carrillo

Each year in January, the Board of Supervisors sets our priorities for the coming year. We capture the accomplishments of the past year; review the challenges that were addressed, refocus on those long term issues remaining, and include any new issues that may have arisen during the prior year. The County’s theme for this year is building strong foundations for the future. 

In 2014 we battled through yet another year of drought, as well as an earthquake that shook our homes that reminded us both of our fragility and our strengths. Today Sonoma County has one of the strongest economies in the State. We are tackling legacy challenges and making major investments that provide the foundation for our next generations. Needs remain high, but opportunities persist. We have made strategic investments targeted at the board’s priorities in making smart investments in our community. 

The number one issue of the day is securing and supporting our water supply. As it looks likely that we will be entering our 4th year of drought conditions – despite the atmospheric river that wreaked havoc on our region in mid December – we must remain mindful of our collective conservation efforts.  

Sonoma County has risen to the challenge, and we must continue to do so for the foreseeable future. We have worked feverishly on drought response measures, aggressively implemented conservation strategies, focused on water re-use, and groundwater management plans that complement the new state guidelines on groundwater.

Our Robust Economy 

At the State of the County breakfast, economist Dr. Jerry Nickelsburg from the UCLA Anderson Forecast, declared that our county is on the path to a robust economy. At the County level, accomplishments include adding 34% to our reserves and making a significant payment into our pension debt. Housing prices rose 12% and foreclosures have plummeted. Unemployment is lower than before the recession. Tourism continues to play a huge role in our economy, and keeps growing – producing nearly $100 million in tax revenues and 10% of local employment.

Sonoma County currently has the 5th lowest unemployment rate out of 58 counties in the state and our job creation rate outpaces the state and the nation. Cost of doing business in the county is 2% below the national average, which gives us a great competitive advantage when we are attracting businesses to relocate or helping those already here expand. 

In short, Sonoma County has one of the strongest economies in the state of California – which in turn has one of the strongest economies in the world. Our economy continues to grow, we are recovering from the economic recession, and we are still riding out the storm of an unprecedented economic crisis as a community. Tourism in the county has had yet another banner year and we are poised in 2015 to surpass the successes of 2014. 

We have the courage, we have the talent and the willingness to form collaborative relationships that will ensure a legacy that is economically viable, environmentally sustainable, culturally diverse and welcoming.

Working towards Sustainability 

A thread of sustainability weaves through everything that the county does. Sonoma County is also known for our innovative work on climate change, energy efficiency, renewable energy, green business development, water management, resources conservation, among others. Our efforts are being recognized regionally and nationally. In December, the Obama Administration recognized Sonoma County as a national leader in Climate Change efforts.

We realized a long-standing dream of generating local renewable power. Sonoma Clean Power accomplished a major milestone last year and every eligible city in the county is now part of Sonoma Clean Power. Lower rates, cleaner power and local control are all current realities. 

It is not enough to simply invest in clean power and conserve our lands, we must invest in infrastructure in ways that support our families, businesses, agricultural partners, tourism, and workers for generation to come. 

At the top of our priority list this year is the condition of our road network. We are continuing to address the roads crisis with historic levels of investment and the adoption of a long term roads plan. In 2015 we will continue to prioritize our roads looking at new ways to fund our roads, and the possibility of a measure before voters in June of this year.

 Economic Disparity

The good news in the county does not come without its downside. Sonoma County commissioned the Portrait of Sonoma County in 2014. The evidence outlined in the report graphically shows that we are a bifurcated county of “have” and “have nots”. There are sectors of poverty often within minutes of neighborhoods of wealth and privilege – living worlds apart in terms of education, work opportunities, and health.

Addressing poverty and income disparity continues to be a focus of our efforts at the County. Last year, the county provided $24 million in rental assistance (through a variety of programs) to families, veterans, the disabled, and the elderly. This was not enough to solve the housing crisis that many of our young families are experiencing. The rental market has seen rising rent rates from 30-50% and vacancy rates of less than 2%. In short – if you are among the working poor, it is very difficult to find an affordable place to live.

There are over 4000 individuals – including our seniors and young children – living on the streets or in cars in Sonoma County.  As I write this column, the biannual homeless count is actively seeking to update our numbers.  There is little doubt among our community based organizations who work in this field that our numbers will be up.

In 2014, The Board authorized the Homeless Outreach Services Team pilot project and expanded our Safe Parking Program.  These measures are helpful, but we must do more to attack the root of the problem – the lack of affordable housing and rising rents.

Policy measures can help as can allocating additional funding to support affordable housing projects.  These are Band-Aid measures that we can implement now to alleviate our current situation – a long term solution to the chronic dilemma requires investment in a real solution.  

During Latino History Month, Los Cien hosted Stanford Professor Dr. David Grusky.  His message was clear:  It is time to change the game for practical solutions to long term generational poverty.    Chief among the recommendations is investing in early childhood health and education.  Along with our partners in the community, we are addressing educational inequities beginning with a focus on universal preschool to ensure that every child is prepared to enter school, graduate and reach their full potential. 

Education has been shown – through the Portrait and other studies – to be the top predictor of health in later years.  

The development of an educated workforce ensures our economic vitality in the future, and the direct economic assistance that subsidized preschool provides to working families give them a boost up in affording a place to live. This is perhaps the most important community discussion for the coming year.

Other educational initiatives include the Career Technical Education program – which brings marketable job skills to our high school students, 10,000 Degrees scholarship program – which focuses on those who may be first in their family to achieve a college education, and the expansion of 4H into our Latino community.

Change in our Thinking

We have weathered the economic storms of recent years together.  That climate forced a change to the way that the County does business, and opened the doors to new ways of thinking and opportunities to work toward solutions to these major challenges.  As we enter 2015, know that making our County community healthier, more sustainable, and economically vibrant will be our goal – while providing better opportunities for our neighbors who deserve their shot at a more even playing field.  

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1942 and 2011 Aerials of the Santa Rosa Plain

In 1942, the Department of War collected air photos in anticipation of a possible strike.  These photos are the earliest complete image set for Sonoma County and give us an unprecedented look at Sonoma County's agriculture and open space prior to the post World War II baby boom.

69 years of land use/land cover change in Sonoma County

For a fascinating look at Sonoma County from above - corca 1942 to 2011, visit this website. You can scroll back and forth from the present to the past with the center divider. Back up to see changes across the entire county - focus in close to see where you live then and now.