When people think of Sonoma County’s beautiful and lucrative wine country, they likely think of endless vineyards, rolling hills and the wealthy elite there to enjoy it. They probably don’t think of miles and miles of decrepit roads with potholes so many and massive that bikers and drivers can barely avoid accidents. But as Reuters reports, that’s the condition of California’s twelfth-wealthiest county, whose public employee pension costs are so immense that there’s no money left to provide residents with the most basic and essential social services:
Tom Hale, who runs Backroads, a travel company that provides cycling and walking tours to tourists in Sonoma County, wrote to the county’s board of supervisors in January expressing concern over bike accidents caused by terrible roads.The situation has reached a “critical” point, Hale says – and he blames soaring salary and pension costs for the crumbling infrastructure affecting his business.
Mr. Hale isn’t wrong. Like Stockton and San Bernardino before it, Sonoma’s feckless financial management and exploding pension costs are pushing it to the brink of bankruptcy. Since 2000, Sonoma’s pension costs have grown by 400 percent. Add in $489 million in public employee salaries (a 55 percent increase from 2000), and the big salary and pension deals given to county workers at the beginning of the century now account for an astonishing 45 percent of this year’s $1.3 billion budget.Of course, these out of control costs aren’t being paid for either. Multimillion-dollar bond deals in the last decade haven’t even begun to allow Sonoma to stop the bleeding in its unfunded liabilities, which amounted to $353 million last year and could grow by another $174 million next year.The sweetheart deals Sonoma’s public officials granted to public employees are now preventing this hyper-affluent county from fulfilling the minimum requirements of a responsible local government. Residents of an area blessed with the resources to afford the public a high quality of life will eventually want decent roads. As people leave, revenue will fall, making it harder to find the $1.6 billion Sonoma needs to repair its roads and sidewalks.One possible silver lining: when California’s elite begin to feel the pinch of disastrous blue model policies as much as the inland poor have, the winds of change may start to sweep the state. But for now, it’s clear that even very wealthy communities cannot bear the costs of governance, California style.[Image of Sonoma vineyard courtesy of Shutterstock]