Sonoma’s new city council has its work cut out for it. The new majority – Gurney, Farrar Rivas, and Wellander – joins two other council members who have only two years experience. Add to that the unstable and changing administration in City Hall and you’ve got the potential for a perfect storm. Here’s hoping this winter goes smoothly and we’re not beset with major weather challenges, a new Covid surge, or an earthquake.
The city council must take charge quickly. Top of the list is hiring a permanent City Manager, but that position won’t be filled until late spring or early summer. In the meantime, the council has a chance to undertake a thorough review of how the city’s administrative staff is organized. It’s likely that positions can be consolidated, such as that of Planning Director and Building Department manager. There may be other ways to reduce the number of department heads as well, improve efficiency, and lower costs.
Over the past decades, the cost of government has risen dramatically. Despite a half-cent sales tax, the doubling of TOT revenue, and a cost-recovery program for the processing of development applications, the city’s budget remains tight. In 2006 the city’s financial reserves totaled just over $8 million. Nearly 20 years later, and despite substantial revenue growth and new taxes, those reserves are still only about $8 million. This raises the question: where is the money going?
One answer to that question is: to pay consultants. For example, the city has set aside a half-million dollars to pay consultants to revise its General Plan. In 1994, the city’s award-winning General Plan was largely completed by city staff, not consultants. What’s changed? The answer lies in the combination of state legislation, lobbying, the role of consulting firms in financing campaigns, and writing legislation.
State legislation is now so demanding that complying with its complexity requires the expertise of specialized consultants. Traffic studies, economic analysis, CEQA compliance, housing programs; these and other elements of planning governed by state law are now so complicated that city staff have neither the time nor expertise to provide it. Over the past three decades, the consulting industry has wedded itself to state regulations, in some cases even writing them; cities like Sonoma have little choice but to comply with what is now a consultant money machine. No wonder the City of Sonoma is always crying the blues over money.
We need a top to bottom analysis of how the city operates, how it spends the taxpayer’s money, and how the current situation can be ameliorated. No major civic improvements have been accomplished in Sonoma for many years. Were it not for CalTrans, the School District, and the Hospital District, we’d have seen no real changes in decades. Either the city is squandering its revenues or is being asked to do more than its budget and expertise allow. In either case, we need to know the answer if we’re to make any progress.
Were it not for Federal pandemic money, the city budget would be in the red. What about new parks, bike paths, and a recreation center? What the residents deserve and expect seems always out of reach.
Here’s hoping the new council deals effectively with the city’s spending, and begins to move our community successfully into the future.