For Sonoma County people who value the services provided by hometown government, another dispiriting week has come and gone. Local agencies continue to be hammered by budget shortfalls, and the latest financial updates offer no reason to be optimistic about what will happen next year or the year after.
In the beginning, local government may have escaped the adversities being visited on the private economy, but it was only a matter of time.
Unfortunately, too many local officials remain in denial, unable or unwilling to catch up to the here and now, unable or unwilling to confront the questions that matter most:
One, in a rapidly changing world, how are they going to promote jobs and economic opportunity for the next generation of county residents?
Two, as government gets smaller – and it will get smaller – how are they going to re-invent local government, maintaining critical services and jettisoning the rest?
Three, what will be the total cost of existing financial obligations – debt, pensions, health care, deferred maintenance – and how do they propose to pay for them?
These are tough issues, but ignoring them won’t make them go away. Ignoring them will only make solutions more difficult.
In case you were hiding out, here’s some of the unhappy news of recent days:
-The Santa Rosa City Council must identify another $8 million to $10 million in spending cuts. This comes only months after the city made $26 million in reductions and eliminated the jobs of 97 city employees. Additional shortfalls are projected in the out years.
-The Santa Rosa Board of Education faces a $5.6 million shortfall in 2010-2011 and a $4.7 million shortfall in 2011-2012. All of the options – shortening the school year, increasing class sizes, eliminating librarians – will make it more difficult for local kids to be successful.
-The county library system will close all 13 libraries during the Christmas holidays. School kids on vacation will have to fend for themselves.
-The Petaluma City Council, which reduced spending by almost $4 million in June, must now identify another $2.2 million in budget cuts.
Note to council: It might help if you cut down on the number of times the Police Department must respond to City Council meetings. Last week, the cops were called after a shouting match between Mayor Pam Torliatt and former Councilman Bryant Moynihan.
Here was the perfect metaphor for local politics in recent years: Two longtime political rivals shouting at each other.
Meanwhile, Santa Rosa City Manager Jeff Kolin found a way out of this mess. As City Hall girded for another round of budget cuts, he accepted the job as the city manager of Beverly Hills, a smaller city with a larger budget.
Goodbye, Santa Rosa Avenue. Hello, Rodeo Drive.
And who can blame him? City politics is plagued by ancient rivalries, and the current council seems to drift from one issue to the next, with no clear idea of how to get the city moving again.
If it chooses, local government can blame its troubles on a faltering economy and on the serial dysfunctions of state government. But local government is not blameless, and it doesn’t matter anyway. Local officials can choose to play the victim, or they get about the business of solving problems.
Here it is: In a global economy, Sonoma County isn’t guaranteed the middle-class prosperity it enjoyed a decade ago – especially if the usual suspects remain wedded to the knee-jerk responses of the old politics.
During last week’s work session on the city’s budget crisis, Santa Rosa Vice Mayor Marsha Vas Dupre raised the specter of new hillside development.
What does a budget crisis have to do with hillside development?
Vas Dupre worries that if the city pursues efforts to promote new jobs, runaway development will follow.
The idea that city must choose between (a) economic stagnation, or (b) destroying the environment makes no sense. But so it goes at City Hall.
Incidentally, the council was told last week that in the quarter ending October 1, the city issued four – yes, four – residential building permits. So much for runaway growth.
In the short term, we can expect local officials to explore budget solutions that may or may not make sense from a public policy standpoint.
A Santa Rosa City Council that once viewed competitive bidding as a way to save rate payers millions of dollars may automatically renew its contract with the current garbage hauler because the deal would be worth $1.7 million a year.
Petaluma is talking to a developer who would advance the city $1 million in fees in return for permission to build a shopping center.
The Santa Rosa Board of Education is talking about dipping into reserves, hoping that that better days are ahead. They had better come soon.
In tough times, organizations do what they can.
It remains that state and local government are laboring under the weight of a decade of short-term decisions with long-term consequences. Like it or not, the moment of reckoning isn’t far away. Communities can confront the hard choices – or accept the inevitability of economic stagnation.