By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously endorsed a plan to boost annual county spending on economic development by $600,000.
The board voiced strong support for the recommendations put forward by Supervisors Mike McGuire and Efren Carrillo, who together led a seven-month study aimed at updating the county’s approach to economic development and its support for private-sector job creation.
Their recommendations 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.
Other proposals would expand broadband Internet service to businesses and residents in rural areas and help businesses secure financing, including state and federal incentives.
The initiatives, which would take effect during five years, do not come with any specific goal on job creation numbers.
“The whole goal is to improve the business climate for job creation and job retention,” said Ben Stone, director of the county’s Economic Development Board.
Four county jobs would be added immediately to carry out the plan, a move that would roughly double the county’s economic development staff. Several supervisors and one representative of the business community said that increase was welcome and overdue.
“I think you’ve been grossly understaffed,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane told Stone in her board comments.
“This is a positive model. The more people you get in there talking positively about business, the better off we’ll be,” said Lisa Wittke Schaffner, chief executive of the Sonoma County Alliance, a coalition of business, agriculture and labor interests.
Supervisors expressed some reservations about the funding needed for the expanded efforts and where it would come from. The county is facing its fourth straight budget deficit going into next fiscal year.
“My angst always comes back to the amount of money we’re spending,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt.
For the remainder of the 2011-2012 fiscal year, the newly approved initiatives are expected to cost up to $350,000. Two pots of money were suggested for the funding — hotel bed taxes derived from the county’s advertising fund and contingency money set aside annually from the general fund. A board decision on funding is expected in January.