'Too damn poor' for self-government? | News – Sonoma West

Something called the Zion Report popped up last month when Michael Torr mentioned it at a Guerneville town meeting where residents were talking about potential governance options for the lower Russian River.

Torr, of Monte Rio’s longtime family, acknowledged he may have been the only person in the room who remembered the obscure Russian River Incorporation Feasibility Study prepared in 1978 by William R. Zion, a government planning consultant, for the Russian River Municipal Advisory Council (MAC).

The report’s message, “If we did incorporate, property taxes wouldn’t cover the expenses of running the government,” remains just as true today, said Guerneville resident, historian and retired deputy sheriff John Schubert. “We were just too damn poor out here.”

Brief by today’s government report standards, the 32-page Zion document describes a bygone era when the projected expense of creating and running a complete city government sounded almost unimaginably modest. An entire new local government could be up and running annually, said Zion, for less money than it would take nowadays to buy a house in Sebastopol.

 A salary for one full-time deputy sheriff, for instance, was listed as less than $20,000 a year. The same salary today starts at more than $90,000 a year, with benefits and overtime pushing it closer to $180,000.

There were a lot of unknowns about incorporating the river 40 years ago, such as the effects of state Proposition 13’s limit on property tax hikes. Another major mystery was the cost of building and running a non-existent Guerneville sewage disposal system.

 Zion’s 1978 report followed an earlier study he prepared for the Russian River Chamber of Commerce in 1962 that said incorporating “is not feasible,” at least not with existing revenue sources, mainly property taxes.

To overcome the financial hurdles, Zion’s report suggested new sources of revenue such as multiple benefit assessments, “based on the size of each building,” to help pay for policing the new city.

 Another service fee per building might pay for street maintenance. Recreational operation and maintenance could also be paid for with a monthly fee charged to each house in the new city.

 Lower Russian River residents were looking at incorporation 40 years ago to address issues they’re still concerned about today: law enforcement, town trash pickup, more local planning control and how to pay for it all.

 Eric Koenigshofer, the west county’s Fifth District supervisor at the time, said today’s lower Russian River’s governance issues echo the debate of 40 years ago.

“When I hear the discussion today it’s the same kind of concerns” in the west county, said Koenigshofer, an Occidental resident. “I don’t think the solution is incorporation. We couldn’t afford it then and we can’t afford it now.”

The major purpose of incorporation “would be to establish locally-administered land use improvement programs, controls and funding mechanisms that the county finds it difficult to accomplish in unincorporated areas,” said Zion’s report.

The lower river’s population was growing noticeably fast circa 1978, with year-round residents moving into former summer cabins, although Zion and the Russian River MAC weren’t really sure how many people actually lived here.

 “There has been substantial disagreement and uncertainty over local population growth,” said Zion’s report, “due largely to the on-going conversion of seasonal housing to housing for permanent residents. This type of population growth is difficult to monitor.”

For the sake of establishing an estimate, a “city” population was projected at somewhere between 3,000 and 8,000 residents in Rio Nido, Guerneville, Monte Rio and Villa Grande.

The rapid conversion of summer homes to full-time residency also pressured the need for infrastructure such as a Guerneville sewage disposal system that was still in the planning stages 40 years ago.

In 1977 the county estimated the potential incorporation population at 3,150 just in the area to be served by the sewers, comprising most of Rio Nido and Guerneville and parts of Guernewood Park and Vacation Beach.

Also unclear was where the proposed Russian River city boundaries would be drawn. The MAC study area was generally defined as the Rio Nido, Guerneville and Monte Rio lighting districts. But also under consideration to join the new city were Northwood, Villa Grande and Duncans Mills.

If a Russian River city government was to be established, Zion’s report recommended copying Sebastopol’s council-manager system with a 5-member elected council and a city administrator.

A lower Russian River city staff in those days would have included the city manager, three clerks, a city planner and a building inspector, with an estimated annual cost projected at less than $100,000 for all their salaries.

A river police department would need a chief, a lieutenant, three sergeants, four deputies, a detective and a dispatcher, according to Zion’s report. The county sheriff’s department could be contracted (like Windsor and Sonoma do now) to provide law enforcement services, estimated at approximately $339,000 per year, not counting a dogcatcher.

Zion’s report made local road maintenance, one of the more expensive hot button issues of recent years, sound like a piece of cake.

“County officials feel the main roads in the area are in good shape,” said Zion, describing approximately 60 miles of county roads in the proposed incorporation area that would become the new city’s responsibility to maintain after incorporation.

“Road maintenance should not be a costly problem after incorporation, said Zion, who figured that many of the roads would be improved as part of the upcoming sewer project being funded largely with state and federal funds.

The lack of street sweeping and regular trash pickup services were also problems that cityhood could solve, said Zion’s report. The annual cost for a private company to sweep the downtown streets back then was about the present-day price of a nice dinner at the French Laundry restaurant.

Koenigshofer said it’s nothing new to hear lower river residents complain in general about being underserved by county government, but without any specific and realistic ideas on what needs to be done.

 “What is the specific perceived failure of county government?” said Koenigshofer. Rather than a grandiose project like cityhood, river residents should instead “look for the solutions to specific issues” such as the absence of regular downtown sidewalk cleaning and trash collection.

 The lower Russian River’s unplanned development occurred before the county had zoning regulations or a planning department, and to some extent that early “anything goes” legacy remains, concluded Zion, in his 1962 incorporation analysis.

“The local situation and attitude emphasized freedom from governmental controls in the conduct of business and development,” said Zion. “A poor pattern of land use, with inadequate standards, has been evident for several years. Little can be done to change this now, and to this extent the damage as been done.”