The annual State of the Valley Breakfast Forum, sponsored by the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce, united a triumvirate of federal, county and local officials Friday morning to reflect on how we’re doing, where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.
Speaking to a packed dining hall of business and government leaders were Fifth District Congressman, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin and Sonoma Mayor Tom Rouse.
Thompson led off the program with a broad survey of issues important to the Fifth District and the nation, beginning with a review of issues relating to jobs and the economy.
To really get the economy “cookin,” said Thompson, Congress should invest more in infrastructure. He warned that the nation’s transportation infrastructure is “in woeful condition,” and reported that every $1 billion invested in infrastructure produces 30,000 new jobs. He said he had co-authored an infrastructure jobs bill in the last Congress, “fully paid for” that would have produced more than 170,000 jobs in California alone.
Thompson praised the promise of renewable energy, which, he said, “is good for the economy, good for jobs and good for the environment.”
Renewable energy, he said, is to the 21st century, what coal and oil were to the 20th century.
And he praised the PACE program, pioneered by Sonoma County, that used seed money to fund energy efficiency loans for homes and businesses, that are repaid through property tax assessments and follow ownership of the property. So far, he said, the PACE program has created hundreds of jobs and pumped nearly $60 million back into the local economy.
On other matters of legislative interest, Thompson stated:
• Immigration: “The Senate passed a bill, House Democrats have a bill … There has been a huge political shift on immigration. The Republicans know they have to deal with the issue. We’re going to have immigration reform – if as couple of Republican principles get passed.”
• Health Care Reform: Thompson praised a bill by Silicon Valley Rep. Anna Eshoo, who is carrying a bill to address the geographic and demographic differences affecting the cost of living and therefore the cost of health care in various parts of the country.
• Veterans’ issues: Citing a backlog in VA-managed veterans’ cases, Thompson noted that the Oakland VA office had the worst backlog in the country (with a waiting period of 500 days) and was temporarily closed to provide time to retrain and reorganize staff. Thompson said he has personally lobbied President Obama on the issue and called the case logjam, “outrageous.”
Thompson also took aim at what he called a fundamental injustice when he authored a bill that now requires all flags used by the Department of Defense to be made in the United States. Until passage of his bill, Thompson said, the VA used only American-made flags, but DOD did not have to.
Noting that there is a flag manufacturer in Sonoma County, Thompson said, “No military entity should be required to fight or serve under a flag made in China.”
When Gorin took the microphone, she regaled the audience with the latest positive news about the local economy, noting that Sonoma County produced 6,900 new jobs in 2013, that unemployment has dropped to 6 percent in the county, but is down to 4.9 percent in Sonoma Valley.
Agriculture and hospitality are “booming,” she stated, with more than 54,000 agriculture jobs to date.
Gorin acknowledged that Sonoma County roads are suffering from “a legacy of years of neglect, and that “anything that’s drivable is better than what we have right now.” She said $1.2 billion is needed for investment in infrastructure and highways.
Speaking about the imminent loss of trees in the Highway 12 project corridor, she said, “Trees are going to have to come down,” but that the improvements will be worth the pain and more trees will be planted.
Turning her attention to the Sonoma Developmental Center, Gorin said SDC “is the most important issue facing Sonoma Valley in the next few years.”
Mayor Tom Rouse began his remarks by directing the entire audience to stand and join him in a rain dance to the music of the song, “Rain” by the group Creed, played through the speaker of his mobile phone.
He then touted the economic health of the City of Sonoma, reviewed local crime statistics, praised the community’s $1 million in support for local schools and dismissed fears of tasting room proliferation with the observation, “The free market probably takes care of itself.”
Finally, touching on the impending call for a 15 percent voluntary water reduction and the impact of the drought, “No matter what happens from here on out, we’re in trouble.”