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News: 05/15/2018

Lawmakers, administrators discuss SDC future

Process is new, pathways are uncertain, but movement is inevitable

group at podium
(L to R) State Senators Mike McGuire and Bill Dodd, Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, and First District Supervisor Susan Gorin spoke about the future of the Sonoma Developmental Center on May 10.

What’s becoming clearer by the day about the closure and disposition of the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) is that nothing about it is clear except that it will continue to be very expensive to cope with the 120-year-old complex and find suitable uses for the land and aging buildings that once were home to thousands of developmentally disabled people in California.

State Senators Mike McGuire and Bill Dodd, Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, Nancy Bargmann and Daniel Kim, the directors of the departments of Developmental Disabilities and General Services, respectively, First District Supervisor Susan Gorin, and selected guests met with more than 100 people at Altimira Middle School’s gym on Thursday evening, May 10. They were there to talk about the fate of the remaining handful of residents at SDC, new medical facilities catering to the special care needs of some displaced residents, and to provide an update on the campus, its surrounding open spaces, and ongoing site assessment review.

The closure of Sonoma’s historic Developmental Center is not following the path of four prior closures. That decision poses budgetary and proprietary conundrums that have no easy solutions. The speakers set out to allay continuing fears that unseen hands are driving the process toward some unknown conclusion favoring unknown private parties.

“It’s up to this community,” Sen. Dodd said, about what happens to the SDC. “There’s no final decision. The state is not interested in making these decisions. Local input is driving this process.”

What is true is that no one knows what will happen when the 2018-2019 state budget runs out at the end of June, 2019. Until then, the Department of Developmental Services (DDS), a division of the State Health Department, handles all the money spent on SDC, which will include the costs of maintaining and securing the grounds and buildings once the residents and staff have gone. It also includes continuing fire protection, grounds security, building security, fencing off some areas, keeping the central heat and water systems working that service the entire campus, and a host of other responsibilities involved with owning large grounds and extensive buildings.

Who will be responsible to pay for the upkeep and management of SDC after June, 2019, will be the focus of long and hard discussions over the coming year.

Typically, Director Kim said, the Department of General Services (DGS) would dispose of surplus property as soon as it can to avoid spending General Fund money for upkeep. Not so with SDC. “We have no intention of selling this property. What happens will be a community-driven process.”

The DGS is not in the business of property management, but oversees disposal. It is in everybody’s interest to pass the responsibility for ownership and management to a local entity, whether it be the County of Sonoma directly or some new agency, like a trust, similar to that governing San Francisco’s Presidio.

The cost of maintaining the campus in a “warm shutdown” mode has been estimated to be between $10 and $18 million a year by various sources. DGS Deputy Director Jason Kenny was blunt about the state of the existing buildings.

“It would be cheaper to tear them down and rebuild,” he said, though that decision will belong to the successor agency presumably under local guidelines.

The state is willing to have SDC’s disposition placed under local control but does not want to bear the high cost of maintaining it or deciding what to do with it. Sonoma County will seek as much state help as it can get, a job that will fall to McGuire, Dodd and Aguiar-Curry and their successors in Sacramento.

Mapping out how this process will play out kicked off with a Monday, May 7 meeting in a hearing room at the State Capitol, attended by McGuire, Dodd, Aguiar-Curry, Kim, Bratton, plus County Counsel Bruce Goldstein, and County Administrative Officer Sheryl Bratton.

Gorin was not available for that meeting, but the following day she had a minute order passed at Tuesday’s regular Board of Supervisor’s consent calendar, that allows the county to spend up the $100,000 in staff time to work out possible scenarios for managing the SDC.

“There is no existing plan,” she emphasized. Everything is being worked out with the expectation that a winning idea will emerge sometime before next June.

“This is the most important decision facing Sonoma Valley and the county as well,” Gorin said.

Once a mechanism for administering the process is worked out, a Master Plan will be developed, a process which will include public hearings and public input at all stages, the lawmakers said. A site assessment study commissioned by the DGS was put on hold after the October fires, but will get back on track with a public hearing to be scheduled late in June, Director Kim said. A draft version of the final report will be available before the June public meeting, Kenny said.

The initial draft report, prepared last September by Wallace Roberts Todd, shows most of the buildings are either unsalvageable or need extensive repairs. Few are suitable for use as they are today. If pursued, a second phase of the study will develop recommendations for future uses.

Many people in the audience have loved ones at the SDC and are still upset with the closure. Parent Hospital Association President Kathleen Miller made a passionate and tearful plea for the state to consider and reconsider maintaining some services at the campus.


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