By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Two Sonoma County supervisors are calling for a $600,000 increase in annual spending on economic development, saying any turnaround in the county’s 9.4 percent unemployment rate and lackluster business environment requires public-sector support.
The recommendations, contained in a seven-month study led by Supervisors Mike McGuire and Efren Carrillo, are set to go before the full Board of Supervisors today.
They include efforts to guide businesses over regulatory hurdles, programs to retain current companies and recruit new ones, a bid to boost workforce training and the creation of business clusters around various segments of the local economy, including health care, manufacturing and agriculture.
The proposals have a five-year timeline and would immediately add four county government jobs, nearly doubling the current staff at the county’s Economic Development Board. Funding, at least in the first year, would come from hotel bed taxes and not from the county’s general fund, which already faces a $16.8 million deficit next fiscal year.
McGuire and Carrillo acknowledged that fiscal crisis, now nearly four years long, but said the extra investment is needed to get the county’s economy back on track.
“I don’t think we can wait for the feds or the state to take action. It’s going to be up to us to drive our economic recovery,” said McGuire.
The two leaders did not assert any primary government role in job creation. Instead, they said, the county must support businesses in those efforts.
“That’s the commitment, for the county to address those needs,” said Carrillo.
Their recommendations seek to address common hurdles to local business investment, including regulatory delays, a shortage of trained workers and insufficient start-up financing, the supervisors said.
But one local fiscal watchdog who applauded their intent said the study may have missed more significant factors — the state’s tax structure and the relatively high cost of living in Sonoma County, for instance — while proposing fixes that could prove ineffective in changing the larger economic picture.
“What that does is create a likelihood of wasting public money,” said Jack Atkin, president of the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association.
The recommendations abut some private-sector ventures, such as the Sonoma Mountain Business Cluster in Rohnert Park, which has fallen far short of its job-creation goals.
They also parallel existing county efforts, including a $300,000 investment in the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce-backed Building Economic Success Together, or BEST program, which seeks to create 4,000 local jobs.
McGuire and Carrillo said the new initiatives will not duplicate those existing efforts.
The recommendations are up for tentative approval today and would come back to the board next month or in January for funding decisions.