By ROBERT DIGITALE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
With unemployment in Sonoma County stuck at or near double digits for more than two years, local business, labor and government leaders are eagerly awaiting to see what President Obama proposes tonight to create more jobs across the nation.
Few expect a quick turnaround in the local economy, which has shed 21,000 jobs since 2007. More than one in 10 workers in Sonoma County have seen their jobs disappear over the last four years, according to the state Employment Development Department.
And although the local economy has slowly started to create jobs again, even the most optimistic economic forecasts warn it will take years to replace those that were lost.
Several local business leaders expressed support for an increase in federal spending on roads and infrastructure, which would put construction crews back to work. But even many of them said tax credits and other possible stimulus measures seem more like a re-election strategy for President Obama than a long-term approach to boost employment and help the economy.
“No president has gotten re-elected with unemployment levels where they are today,” said Henry Hansel, president of the Hansel Auto Group, the county’s largest car dealer and one of its biggest retail companies.
At one point, Hansel cut a quarter of his workforce as consumers slowed spending. Today he has 460 employees at his seven dealerships in Santa Rosa and Petaluma — and he plans to add 25 new workers over the next four months, anticipating a jump in auto sales late this year.
But a tax credit won’t boost or accelerate that hiring.
“The only reason we’re going to hire more people is we can justify it from a business standpoint,” he said.
Nearly three out of four jobs shed in Sonoma County during the recession have come from just four sectors: construction, government, retail and manufacturing.
About 26,100 Sonoma County residents were looking for work last month, more than double the 11,200 unemployed workers in 2007. Unemployment has improved slightly over the past year, but it will take time to put idled job-seekers back to work.
In June, Moody’s Analytics economist Steve Cochrane forecast the local economy will add 3,000 jobs this year, with similar growth in 2012 and 2013. At that rate, it would take more than six years to replace the jobs lost during the recession.
Labor and some government leaders argue that unemployment has become the greatest threat to the U.S. economy, calling it a crisis that requires a dramatic response.
“We need something really bold,” said Lisa Maldonado, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council. “We need to put Americans back to work for the good of the country.”
County Supervisor Shirlee Zane agreed and said President Obama needs to quit trying to reach compromises with Republicans in Congress and “take a cue from give-‘em-hell Harry” Truman.
“I think the reason why people don’t have confidence right now is that he has made the mistake of being conciliatory over and over again,” Zane said.
But business leaders expressed reservations — some mild, some vehement — about Obama’s ability to make things better with a big jobs program.
“The federal government can’t and shouldn’t create jobs,” said Keith Woods, chief executive officer of the North Coast Builders Exchange.
Woods said he supports spending federal dollars to improve roads and make other improvements to the nation’s infrastructure. But he maintained that government also should spur job growth by reducing the number of rules affecting U.S. businesses.
Overregulation was a common lament from other business leaders.
“It’s driving people away,” said Dick Ghilotti, president and CEO of Santa Rosa-based Ghilotti Construction.
Ghilotti estimates he has cut about 20 percent of his workers since the beginning of the recession. Today, he has about 250 employees and hopes to keep that level stable over the next 12 months.
Some bridges and road sections on Highway 101 are 60 years old, and many other roads here are “crumbling,” he said. Federal spending to fix county roads and highways “will put a lot of people to work,” he said.
Business owners aren’t the only ones who respond skeptically to talk of a multi-billion jobs program.
“It’s very difficult to sell a jobs package like this to economists,” said Robert Eyler, chairman of Sonoma State University’s economics department.
“It’s got to be a long-term investment, not a short-term, ‘I have to get re-elected’” program, Eyler said.
Even infrastructure projects may not have much long-term benefit to the economy, he said. An example of one that does help would be expanding broadband Internet wiring to communities because it allows the businesses there to become more productive.
Some business leaders said that while they don’t want to see money spent on tax credits, they also don’t want the federal government sharply pulling back on spending until the economy grows stronger.
If Congress makes major cuts now in an effort to balance the budget, “we’re going to be deep, deep into a recession,” said Santa Rosa developer Hugh Futrell.
Many leaders suggested they don’t think President Obama can do much to keep the nation from experiencing more economic pain for at least the next few years.
Todd Cowan, president of the builder’s exchange, said residential and commercial builders aren’t going to see much business until the backlog of foreclosures and other distressed properties are taken back by banks and resold at lower prices.
Cowan, owner of Cowan & Associates Designers in Santa Rosa, said he had an office of 12 workers in 2007, but saw hard times coming and cut his staff to three.
“I’ll be very interested to see what the president has to say, but I’m not looking for a lot,” Cowan said.