The Kenwood Press
News: 09/01/2018

Finances uncertain in long road ahead for SDC transition

Jay Gamel

The residential living and support areas that once bustled with clients and caregivers at the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) are going silent with the exodus preceding the vast center’s imminent closure this winter. Just 62 patients remained on July 25, reduced from a peak population of over 2,000 decades ago, with staff leaving as their wards move into much smaller community living residences, considered more suitable under current state and federal policies for developmentally disabled care.

The center’s 700+ acres of open space and 200+ acres of buildings are a major concern for Sonoma County and local residents. The main issue still to be resolved is who will underwrite the enormous costs incurred with ownership, operation and oversight of the property. Those costs could run $100 million or more over the next 10 years.

Negotiations have been underway for many months, led on the county end by First District Supervisor Susan Gorin and ranking county legal and administrative staff. The state is represented by the Department of General Services (DGS) which is responsible for administering all state property.

DGS will become the landlord on July 1, 2019, when the Department of Developmental Services (DDS), a division of the California’s huge health department, formally withdraws from nearly a century of administering and operating the property situated just south of Glen Ellen.

Two things cloud any quick disposition of these lands and buildings: Money, and the make-up of a future administrative body.

“There is no funding secured after July 1, 2019,” said Monica Hassan, Deputy Director of Public Affairs for the DGS. “Future funding would be subject to discussions between the governor and the legislature during the 2019 budget process.”

Developmental Services has $15 million in their budget to care for the property through next June. Any money left over will be returned to the General Fund, according to DDS spokesperson Nancy Lungren. There is no money budgeted after that, she said.

Settling the county and state shares of the future costs is fundamental to sorting out ownership.

California will have a new governor on Jan. 7, 2019. Governor Jerry Brown’s administration has promised a community-led transition process; and, while there’s no specific reason to fear that the next administration will adopt different views, Hassan noted that, “A new administration may have different priorities.”

Brown Administration officials are preparing a preliminary budget that will be delivered to the legislature on Jan. 15, 2019. Having a budget allocation from the start would be a big leg up in the opaque legislative budget negotiations that result in the final 2019-2020 fiscal year budget that will be passed by mid-June 2019.

A petition sponsored by TransformSDC is seeking signatures asking the state to fund a future governing body and immediately transfer the open space to parks. TransformSDC is an aggregate of county, non-profit and citizen groups allied to determine the future of the SDC property. View the petition at TransformSDC.com.

“We want to encourage the public to weigh in to make sure there is the will, and the resources in the next administration’s budget, to allow a community-driven process for governance and use of the site to have a chance to succeed,” said Richard Dale, executive director of the Sonoma Ecology Center (SEC), which is also a member organization of TransformSDC. The SEC currently leases offices on the SDC campus. After June 30 next year, they hope to remain on campus with a month-to-month rental agreement with DGS.

On the legislative side, the SDC’s future budget will be shaped by Sonoma County’s representatives – State Senators Mike McGuire and Bill Dodd, and Assembly Members Jim Wood and Jim Levine. Their importance to achieving long-term funding can’t be underestimated.

“I think it’s imperative for our state (legislators) to bring groups together to work this out before the transition in government, to carry that message forward,” Gorin stated.

Since closure was announced in 2015, Sonoma Valley residents have expressed their desire to see the SDC’s open spaces protected and any usable campus buildings be made available for community purposes where possible. Supervisor Gorin and Glen Ellen Forum member Tracy Salcedo present those positions clearly in Guest Editorial columns in this issue of the Kenwood Press (pages 6 and 7).

Seven hundred or so acres of open spaces could be ceded to the state and local parks that surround the property: Jack London State Historic Park and Sonoma County Regional Parks.

However, the DGS has denied requests to transfer and fund the open spaces independent of the campus spaces.

“The state’s consistent position is the desire to link the disposition of the entire property and governance together,” state parks spokesperson Gloria Sandoval said. “As the state has publically stated, there is no funding secured related to the property after July 1, 2019. Future funding would be subject to discussions between the governor and the legislature during the 2019 budget process.”

“If you transfer all the open space land first, and are left with just the campus, it will change the overall value of the land, and could affect financing,” John McCaull said. He is acquisitions manager for the nonprofit Sonoma Land Trust and has been involved with TransformSDC from the start.

A $2.1-million survey by WRT planners and consultants evaluated the physical campus and suggested possible future uses. The consultants took input through two large public meetings, and listened to a large advisory group of interested local parties. Findings due by late 2017 were delayed by the October wildfires. An interim report was presented to the public this June, but the full 3,000-page document has yet to be published.

The county has suggested that $30 million a year for seven years might be a target figure to pay for the maintenance and operational costs of the transition, at least until the property can become self-sustaining, if ever. The WRT study suggested nearly $300 million might be needed to deal with the existing buildings, though no formal study of specific demolition or renovation costs has been made yet.

TransformSDC has suggested there might be as much as $5 million in county and private local funding available for open space acquisitions.

Most of the SDC buildings and infrastructure need so much upgrading as to be essentially worthless, according to the WRT interim report.

Who will govern the property going forward is the remaining public issue. Suggestions have included a trust similar to San Francisco’s Presidio, a Joint Powers Agreement, or other body with representation to be determined. There is a vocal and determined push by local citizens to have some role in whatever governing body is selected.

Structuring a governing body, however, will be hostage to the budget situation, in that it will need funding to even begin to manage and be responsible for the property.

As it stands, it is fairly certain that not much can be done about the physical property at SDC until its future funding is worked out between the county and the state.