The City of Sebastopol will receive approximately $1.8 million in public funds from the county and federal governments, the majority of which is intended for coronavirus-related fiscal recovery.
City council members announced the disbursements at a special budget committee meeting held on May 19. Mayor Una Glass and Council Member Neysa Hinton, both members of the budget subcommittee, called the meeting with the full council in order to discuss how to use the money given the scarce funding climate.
Since the pandemic began, the city has had to draw around $2 million from its reserves, according to Mayor Glass. While the $1.8 million would seem to nearly completely compensate for the funding lost during the economic downturn over the past year and a half, the money will not all be received this year.
The city will receive half of the $1.4 million in federal relief money for this budget cycle beginning in July. The other $700,000 will be disbursed the following year.
Similarly, the $370,000 the city recently received from the county comes with a few caveats. While the city can use the money for any expenses, the funds were promised as part of the Elderberry Commons project, in which the county purchased the Sebastopol Inn to provide long-term very-low-income housing for medically vulnerable homeless residents through the State of California’s Project Homekey initiative.
The money was intended to compensate for three years of lost transient occupancy tax the City would suffer by converting its only downtown hotel into public housing. Sonoma County was not obligated to provide this sum, making no similar disbursements to compensate Santa Rosa for similar projects.
Council member Hinton emphasized that it would be imprudent to look at the money as a one-year windfall, as the city would feel the loss of the transient occupancy tax income it’s meant to mitigate in following years if not treated properly.
“The money we got from the county—while it’s great, it’s one-time money. It was allocated to make up for three years of transient occupancy tax that will now be missing from our budget. If we were to spend all of that this year, we would be short in coming years,” Hinton said.
The sum also includes funds for the City to use in homeless outreach efforts, and council members began to discuss how the money could be used in that respect.
Debate over the exact way to implement homeless outreach centered over whether the city should create an additional staff position or contract case management and outreach services from West County Community Services (WCCS).
WCCS currently provides case management services for the City at the Park Villa low-income housing project. Council members were also looking to ways to improve services to the Morris Street encampment and engage the interfaith community to offer safe overnight park at local churches.
Council Member Patrick Slayter supported contracting with WCCS rather than hiring additional staff.
“As a small town we just don’t have that expertise. The ability to contract with [West County Community Services] would be an excellent opportunity for us,” Slayter said.
Another main item of discussion was the Relaunch Sebastopol initiative, which was announced at the May 4 council meeting. Relaunch Sebastopol would be a marketing initiative carried out by the city in conjunction with the business community hoping to increase economic activity from both Sebastopol residents and visitors from across the county and Bay Area.
In addition to marketing, it would rely on increased beautification efforts from the public works department, which is one of several departments facing personnel shortages.
“We don’t have enough time or resources to maintain all the landscaping that we have. We’re busy on projects that take priority, like water and sewage. Another priority is cleaning up vandalism and some of the areas our unhoused stay,” Public Works Superintendent Dante Del Prete said.
On a positive economic note, Administrative Services Director Ana Kwong said that despite the persisting uncertainties of economic vitality during the pandemic, the City is expected to recover from its revenue shortages in the coming year. Still, Kwong recommended a conservative approach to this year’s budget.