Despite decades of robust, tourist-based growth, the City of Sonoma is, inexplicably and perennially, short of money. No major civic improvements have been made. No new parks, recreational facilities, or public improvements have been initiated or undertaken by city government. The hotel-room tax has tripled in just 10 years; where’s all the money gone?
This is a difficult question to answer. The city has so reconfigured its services, staffing, and its organization of finances over the past decades that analyzing its use of money is nearly impossible. What we do know is that despite an enormous increase in revenues, Sonoma has not witnessed major civic improvements. Something is sucking up all the added income.
What’s needed is forensic accounting, a review specifically designed to get to the bottom of Sonoma’s money problem and determine its cause. Unless we fully understand the nature of our systemic deficiency, we’ll never solve it, and the problem will continue to be passed on to successive generations of city leadership. Is it our pension obligations? Salary schedule? Theft? Lawsuit settlements? Incompetence?
Whatever it is, we’ve got to stop kicking our financial can down the road.
Financially, running government is much like running any other enterprise. Money comes in from taxes, fees, and assessments, and goes out in salaries, expenses, and short and long term obligations like pensions. It’s not rocket science. Somewhere along the way, however, things have gone awry. The city keeps adding revenue, like the now permanent one-half-cent sales tax, but the increase never seems to be enough. Without including the recent federal pandemic relief funds, our budget’s still tight.
The systemic structural deficiency in Sonoma’s city government has a significant impact on its ability to help solve major problems like homelessness, lack of affordable housing, and the need for recreational facilities. The faces on the City Council and the composition of city staff regularly change, yet the systemic problem remains the same, year after year.
The relatively recent major improvements in Sonoma have all been contributed by agencies other than the city. The decorative street lamps lining Broadway? A CalTrans contribution. Crosswalks and highway restriping? Ditto. The new athletic facilities at the High School? School bonds funded by the voters. Meanwhile, our cemeteries are shabby, the bathrooms in the Plaza are embarrassing, and there are no new parking facilities. The city’s constant refrain is, “Sorry, we don’t have the money to…” do this or that.
Sonoma is a tourist town and unfortunately, it appears the needs of its citizens run second to those of its visitors. Priority is given to hotels, Plaza dining (though that embarrassing Plaza public bathroom is no postcard), and attracting million-dollar-plus, single-family homes. But despite creating an Affordable Housing Trust Fund, the city has been reluctant to adopt policies that would add millions to it. Big commercial interests continue to sway council policy with the argument that added revenue will solve all the city’s problems. But at what cost? Who benefits and who loses?
Sonoma is falling far behind other Wine Country cities that have made huge investments in improving their civic sphere. We desperately need a five-to-ten-year plan based on real financial data and analysis, and we must have one immediately.
Unfortunately, forensic accounting is expensive and we know what the objection to it will be: “Sorry, we don’t have the money.”