Apr 23, 2019
by Will Carruthers
A group of officials split up millions of dollars in state funding at an April meeting, ultimately agreeing to cut funding to some large projects in order to fund additional smaller projects.
After hours of discussion and counter proposals, the Home Sonoma County Leadership Council, the body tasked with deciding what homeless solutions are funded, chose between dozens of project proposals to reach an unhappy middle ground.
The majority of the $14 million in funding - $12.1 million – came from the Homeless Emergency Aid Program (HEAP), a one-time infusion of funding from the state.
Much of the discussion at the meeting surrounded the two largest budget proposals: Santa Rosa’s request for $3.6 million to fix the roof of Sam Jones Hall and convert the Bennett Valley Senior Center into a new shelter, and a $2.5 million request from St. Vincent de Paul to purchase the Gold Coin Motel in Santa Rosa.
The board was split on which project to cut, but ultimately compromised by partially cutting funding to both projects in order to fund other smaller projects.
Under the final agreement, Santa Rosa will receive $1.3 million to repair the Sam Jones Hall roof, but no money to convert the Bennett Valley Senior Center – a project which would have required an additional $2 million in funding.
The board also cut back on St. Vincent de Paul’s request to purchase and convert the Gold Coin Motel into 56 units of housing. The nonprofit will receive $1.5 million for the project.
Both projects faced skepticism from different members of the Leadership Council.
Don Schwartz, an assistant city manager from Rohnert Park, said that the Gold Coin proposal was too expensive and risky given that there was no guarantee that the property sale would go through.
“I’m just not comfortable spending $6.5 million on a property with a $3.5 million appraisal. That seems extremely high to me. Even if it came down $1 million it still seems a questionable use of funds,” Schwartz said.
Jack Tibbetts, a Santa Rosa City Council Member speaking in his role as the executive director of St. Vincent de Paul, said that the large difference in price was due to the fact that his nonprofit is competing with a private developer that had stated in a letter that it would pay $5.5 million for the property.
Lynda Hopkins, a Sonoma County supervisor and leadership council, defended Tibbetts’ proposal, noting that Home Sonoma’s Technical Advisory Committee had vetted the project.
Hopkins later questioned the request for funding to repair the roof of Sam Jones Hall, noting that the city should have been saving money in anticipation of the repairs to the city-owned shelter.
“Why was there not funding put aside for this need that we have known was coming?” Hopkins asked. “This funding only became available fairly recently so there was not an awareness that this would be a possible funding source.”
Jason Nutt, director of the city’s Transportation and Public Works department, said that the city faces a massive deferred maintenance budget across all of the public buildings it owns and operates.
A recent assessment of the city-owned buildings concluded that the city should be investing between $4 million and $6.5 million a year in maintenance for the next 20 years, according to Nutt.
“Unfortunately, our current capital program invests under $300,000 annually towards the maintenance of those 118 buildings,” Nutt said, adding that the city council would be discussing possible solutions in the coming months.
The Leadership Council also awarded funding to two projects that could change the way local governments approach the challenge of sheltering people quickly and effectively.
Adrienne Lauby, an activist with Homeless Action, said she was encouraged to see members of the Leadership Council ask project sponsors about how much their projects would cost per person sheltered.
Homeless Action has urged local leaders to invest in projects that shelter people quickly and inexpensively offering proposals based on projects that have been completed in other regions with large unsheltered populations.
The Leadership Council ultimately approved two of Homeless Action’s projects for a total of $450,000. The Living Room, a Santa Rosa nonprofit that offers shelter to at-risk women and their children, is acting as a fiscal sponsor for Homeless Action on both projects, according to Lauby.
The first project, a proposal to create a safe parking zone on Linwood Avenue in Santa Rosa, received $200,000.
The second project would allocate $250,000 to create a village of tiny homes somewhere in the county. Homeless Action will work with local government agencies to find a location for the project, Lauby said.
“We think these projects will create a sea change in how people think when they see how easy it is to get people off the street and into some form of shelter,” Lauby said in an interview.
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