By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Five candidates for an open seat on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors staked out largely similar positions supporting government programs to aid children and needy families at a public forum Wednesday.
Funding for health, welfare and other children’s services needs to be maintained or restored where it has been cut, most candidates said. They acknowledged that the state and federal governments fund most of the services, with a relatively small portion coming from the county.
But several of those vying for the 1st District supervisor’s seat also voiced support for a parcel tax to provide a dedicated county funding source for children’s services.
“I’m 100 percent committed to the idea,” said Santa Rosa Councilman John Sawyer.
Santa Rosa Councilwoman Susan Gorin also expressed support for the proposal, while saying any formal move to put it before voters needed careful evaluation.
Sonoma Valley-based candidates Mark Bramfitt and Gina Cuclis echoed those comments.
“If the county government can be seen as effective with the resources they have, that they deliver efficient services, that has to be the foundation for having that discussion with the community,” Bramfitt said.
Keith Rhinehart opposed a parcel tax but suggested that higher taxes on alcohol sales could boost funding for children’s services.
“I don’t think it’s the time for new taxes,” Rhinehart said, summing up his stance on the parcel tax proposal, which has been floated by a coalition of care providers for the November ballot.
The comments highlighted a two-hour forum at the Santa Rosa Central Library that was designed to focus on issues pertaining to children and families.
The session was largely scripted. Candidates responded to questions that had been given to them a week and a half ago. Three others were submitted from the audience of about 100 at the end of the forum.
The lead host was the California Parenting Institute, a Santa Rosa nonprofit that offers parent instruction, coordinates a local child abuse council and provides children’s counseling services.
It was the first candidates’ forum in the 1st District race to replace Supervisor Valerie Brown, who is retiring. And it came amid a streak of news fueling the contest this week.
The latest turn came Wednesday when Sonoma Mayor Joanne Sanders confirmed she has decided to enter the race, a move that observers said would further stiffen competition for alliances and campaign donations.
On Tuesday night, the Sonoma County Democratic Party also failed to endorse a candidate for the seat, which represents Sonoma Valley — including the city of Sonoma — and eastern Santa Rosa.
Gorin fell two votes short of the two-thirds majority needed gain the central committee endorsement. Supporters of Cuclis, a Boyes Hot Springs communication consultant and longtime central committee member, failed to earn support for a second vote. Both candidates brushed off the non-decision Wednesday, saying it was expected.
The forum provided little in comparative fireworks, though it did allow the challengers to draw some distinctions in their experience and priorities.
Cuclis, who serves on the county’s Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health Advisory Board, voiced strong opposition to state cuts in child welfare funding and noted the key role that community health centers play in “safety net” services for low-income residents of Sonoma Valley.
“The county can’t do it alone and neither can community-based organizations,” she said, calling for a wide range of providers.
Gorin said she was concerned with the increasing shift of state-funded health and human service programs to county control without the necessary money.
“We’re talking about stop-gap protection for our kids. This is nuts,” she said, urging more investment in preventative-care programs. “We can do better. We must do better.”
Bramfitt backed protecting funds for early childhood education and health care programs, which were targeted last year by Gov. Jerry Brown to help reduce the state’s budget deficit. Those First 5 programs, serving low income and Latino families in the area, are crucial, Bramfitt said.
“This is an issue of economic justice as well as compassion,” he said.
All five candidates voiced support for the county’s early intervention efforts with needy and at-risk children. Those “upstream investments” are paying off, Sawyer said. “We just have to keep expanding it, showing that it works.”
Rhinehart, a former UPS supervisor who lives just north of Santa Rosa, was the most critical of current funding priorities. He called for a wholesale restructuring of county government, including reductions in county employees’ pay and pensions, which he called “unreasonably high” and a target for litigation.
Reduced labor costs would allow expansion of the now contracting county workforce, Rhinehart said. He also floated an idea akin to government-paid universal health care, saying: “We need to reach out and make sure everybody has some kind of health care coverage.”
The next scheduled candidates’ forum is 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., April 26, at the Sonoma Community Center. It is sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Sonoma County.