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Signs of economic recovery among top Sonoma County stories in 2012

Boni Cardona paints a home under construction, by Lennar, on Chokeberry Court in southeast Santa Rosa on Monday, Jan. 30, 2012.

(Christopher Chung / PD)
Published: Sunday, December 30, 2012 at 3:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 31, 2012 at 7:24 a.m.

The blanket of economic pain covering the North Coast for three long years started to lift in 2012 as the battered housing market began to revive and more people found work again.

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Boni Cardona paints a home under construction, by Lennar, on Chokeberry Court in southeast Santa Rosa on Monday, Jan. 30, 2012.

(Christopher Chung / PD)

But those welcome developments seemed at times to occur at a painfully slow crawl. By contrast, the Petaluma Little League all-stars delivered an exhilarating experience that passed all too quickly.

The team of 12- and 13-year-olds made a historic, improbable run to the national Little League World Series title game, ultimately finishing third in the world.

That innocent pleasure cast in dark relief the admission by hometown cycling celebrity Levi Leipheimer that he had been part of a doping ring managed by Tour de France legend Lance Armstrong and his team's managers.

Rohnert Park occupied an unusually large place in the year's news, as the place where two long-held and controversial visions achieved reality. Sonoma State University opened the Green Music Center to the public. And across town, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria broke ground on what is set to be the Bay Area's largest casino.

In government, circumstances appeared at times to be nears intractable, as Sonoma County officials made incremental progress in their attempts to come to grips with a heavy public pension burden while facing off with employees resisting further cuts.

In other political arenas, there was swifter change.

November's elections remade the county Board of Supervisors, toppled influential Democrat Assemblyman Michael Allen and elevated a familiar face to replace retiring Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, who stepped down after 20 years in Washington.

Movement was recorded on the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit commuter train system. Nearly four years after voters approved tax increases to pay for it, the train agency started laying and renovating 38.5 miles of track.

Troubling trends were evident in Santa Rosa schools, where an analysis of data showed that school choice policies have led to schools that are increasingly segregated by race.

And for pedestrians and bicyclists, the roads continued to be too unsafe, with the tally of deaths and injuries growing to the point that advocates pushed successfully for new laws.

Economy

By year's end, the unemployment rate in Sonoma County, the key marker of economic pain, had declined to 7.7 percent as employers added 8,300 jobs through the year.

That was a marked improvement over the 9.9 percent annual unemployment rate recorded of 2011, when nearly 23,100 jobless residents were looking for work. By this month, that number had dropped to 20,100.

Moody's Analytics said in June that the county's economy, which lost 22,000 jobs in the 2008-2009 recession, was on track to replace nearly all of them within five years.

"There's good reason to think the county's economy is back on its feet," Moody's Managing Director Steve Cochrane said.

Progress also was evident in the housing market, the collapse of which propelled the worst economic crash since the Great Depression. The rate of foreclosure sales fell to its lowest level in more than four years in October. The median home sale price also reached $366,000, up 18 percent from a year before, although analysts said that was because fewer lower-end foreclosure properties were being sold.

Only 8 percent of 480 single-family homes sold in October were foreclosure properties, down from 75 percent of all home sales at the market's lowest point.

Little League

Some 20,000 fans and supporters crammed Petaluma's downtown in September to celebrate the city's Little League all-stars, who had gone on an exhilarating run deep into the Little League World Series.

The 12- and 13-year olds were the first Sonoma County team to reach the youth series. They combined an underdog's pluck, dominating wins and thrilling, come-from-behind victories in an effort that drew international attention and applause.

The team reached the U.S. Championship game before losing 24-16 to Tennessee. The next day, they went out and defeated Panama 12-4 for third place overall in the tournament.

Petaluma residents said the boys had lifted the spirits of a community that saw its share of tragedies in 2012, including the April slaying of local teacher Kim Conover and the accidental death of Kenilworth Junior High student Trevor Smith in June.

"They put us on their shoulders and carried us through all that," Nate Torrens said.

Casino rising

The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria crossed a nine-year divide filled with controversy, fierce opposition, government negotiations and bureaucratic hurdles to break ground in June on a Las Vegas-style casino-resort on Rohnert Park's northwest border.

It was a transformative moment for the 1,300-member tribe, which was restored to federal status in 2000. Now it is set to next year open the doors to a 3,000-slot machine gambling operation projected to earn more than $400 million a year.

That has considerable implications for Sonoma County, too. The Board of Supervisors in October signed an agreement with the Graton Rancheria under which the tribe is to pay the county at least $9 million a year to offset the casino's impacts, plus up to $38 million more a year if the business earns enough money.

"What we have before us is certainly a really good outcome of negotiations for the county," said Supervisor David Rabbitt, whose 2nd District includes the tribe's 254-acre reservation just south of Home Depot.

Rohnert Park also is set to enjoy the fruits of a 20-year, revenue-sharing agreement with the tribe that was reached in 2005.

But opponents held out hope that the casino could be stopped, challenging in court the sovereign status of the tribe's land.

Green Music Center

Across town, at Sonoma State University, a project in the works for even longer than the casino opened its doors to both local and national acclaim.

The first public performance at SSU's $145 million Green Music Center, first announced in 1997 and hampered since then by skyrocketing costs as ambitions for it likewise grew, was among the county's largest-ever social and cultural events.

It was also a singular accomplishment in the legacy of SSU President Ruben Armiñana. He pursued the vision of a world-class music hall in the face of at-times withering criticism that he was forsaking the university's academic mission for an expensive indulgence.

"Despite all the doubt, it's happening," he said before the September opening.

The idea for a "Tanglewood west" was launched with Telecom Valley pioneer Don Green's $5 million gift, which he later doubled. It reached its finale, though, only after financier Sandy Weill fell for the concert hall and stepped in with $12 million to complete it.

That earned him an honorary SSU degree. That in turn provoked a hail of criticism that Weill, whose business practices have been blamed for contributing to the 2008 economic collapse, was an inappropriate person to honor.

(Weill has been a part-owner of The Press Democrat since November.)

Levi's shame

Santa Rosa cycling celebrity Levi Leipheimer is lauded for his role in bringing the Amgen Tour of California to Sonoma County, and for the popular Gran Fondo charity ride that he started, both of which have put the North Coast on the cycling map.

But Leipheimer's public reputation took a hit when in October he admitted to years of doping, including during several of the years when he raced at the Tour de France, cycling's most prestigious competition.

Leipheimer said that under pressure to compete at the sport's top levels, he used the banned substances EPO and testosterone and underwent prohibited blood transfusions off and on between 1999 and 2007.

He was stripped of his third-place Tour de France title and every other of his victories in those years. His team suspended him. And many cycling fans said he'd let them down.

"I regret that this was the state of affairs in the sport that we love and I chose as my career," he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. "I am sorry that I was forced to make the decisions I made. I admit that I didn't let doping deter me from my dream."

Pensions' burden

An ongoing Press Democrat analysis of Sonoma County's public employee pension system revealed the extent to which retirement benefits are imposing a steep, taxpayer-financed financial burden on county government.

Changes that county supervisors in 2002 approved to the pension system -- they took effect in 2003 for public safety workers and in 2004 for other employees -- have caused average annual pensions for career government workers to double, to $74,000 in 2011.

Since 2002, the annual cost to county taxpayers has soared by 298 percent, to an estimated $87.2 million last fiscal year.

By 2011, public safety workers were retiring with average pensions of more than $94,000 a year. Other public employees who retired in 2011 with 20 or more years of service averaged nearly $68,000 in retirement benefits. That was 107 percent more than what coworkers who retired in 2002 got on average.

"It's not a pretty picture," Supervisor Valerie Brown, who was on the Board of Supervisors that unanimously approved the pension plan changes, said in May.

This month, the largest union of Sonoma County government workers rejected a proposed contract that would have cut both their pensions and pay.

The workers represented by the union haven't received cost-of-living pay hikes for five years. They have received merit and experience raises.

In a relatively slight step forward, county supervisors made state-mandated changes to the pension plan that will affect mostly future hires and are projected to save more than $17 million a year by 2022.

The political landscape.

Redistricting created a new North Coast congressional district, the 2nd, that refashioned Rep. Lynn Woolsey's old one, the 6th. And the Petaluma Democrat's retirement after two decades in Congress left the new seat wide open.

In the newly instituted open primary, San Rafael Assemblyman Jared Huffman handily beat his opposition. He won 37.3 percent of the vote over seven other Democrats and a Republican, Dan Roberts of Tiburon, who surprised by coming in second.

In November, Huffman overwhelmed Roberts 70 to 30 percent to win the right to represent the new district, which extends from Marin County to the Oregon border but excludes Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Sonoma Valley and Cotati, which were in Woolsey's old 6th.

Redistricting also led to Assemblyman Michael Allen's ejection from the Legislature. The Democrat, who had quickly risen to become assistant majority floor leader, was forced to rent a home in San Rafael to run for re-election in the 10th District.

That, analysts said, provoked charges of carpetbagging that proved a stiffer obstacle to overcome than Allen had expected, despite spending $1.38 million on the race.

He was ousted by Marc Levine, a relatively unknown San Rafael councilman backed largely by business interests.

November's elections also reshaped the county Board of Supervisors and opened new doors on Santa Rosa's City Council.

In a fierce 1st Supervisorial District race, Susan Gorin prevailed over fellow Santa Rosa council member John Sawyer. Gorin will replace outgoing Sonoma Valley Supervisor Valerie Brown, who is retiring after 10 years in the office. She won with the support of the county's Democratic Party, environmental groups and unions.

The election also ended Sawyer's eight-year council term. But the biggest development for the divided council was the election of Erin Carlstrom.

The 29-year-old attorney sought to straddle the city's dueling political camps, rise above the partisan divide and restore some civility and collaborative spirit to the council.

Supporters say she showed courage in endorsing Ernesto Olivares for re-election and supporting Scott Bartley for mayor.

But the move dismayed progressives who had supported her candidacy, with some characterizing her as a political opportunist.

Now vice-mayor, Carlstrom is effectively the council's swing vote, but not for long, perhaps. That role could fall to whoever replaces Gorin. That decision will be the council's first major one of 2013.

Divided schools

Santa Rosa City Schools' decision to close Doyle Park Elementary School provided a glimpse into troubling trends in the school system.

Two decades into an era of greater school choice, the decisions local families are making about their children's educations are dividing the city's public schools, a Press Democrat reporting project found.

Doyle Park Elementary draws students from a neighborhood where 50 percent of school-age kids are Latino. But the school's student body was 73 percent Latino. Between 2000 and 2010, its percentage of white students dropped from 46 percent to 15 percent.

That's a reflection of the fact that parents are pulling their children from central Santa Rosa grade schools to send them to more affluent surrounding districts.

In Santa Rosa now, all but three elementary schools have a Latino enrollment of more than 70 percent. Meanwhile, in 2010, in the neighboring Rincon Valley, Bennett Valley and Kenwood, and Mark West districts, enrollment was more than 60 percent white.

"Segregation has been exacerbated. White flight has been exacerbated," said Jane Futrell, principal at J.X. Wilson Elementary in the Wright District in west Santa Rosa.

SMART on track

A commuter rail system through Sonoma and Marin counties, hotly debated for decades and still bitterly opposed in some circles, entered a new stage in January: construction.

Work along the old Northwestern Pacific Railroad tracks started a day after Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit directors approved a $103 million contract for the project's first phase.

It was a signal step in a process begun 30 years ago when politicians in Sonoma and Marin counties started working to preserve the railroad right-of-way as a future transit corridor.

It came four years after voters passed a quarter-percent sales tax to fund the train. That ballot box victory followed the defeat of a similar tax measure in 2006.

Foes of the train continued their efforts to derail it into January, pushing a repeal election to overturn the tax that is the transit agency's main source of funding. The effort failed to gather the signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Train service between Guerneville Road in Santa Rosa and downtown San Rafael is expected to start in late 2015 or early 2016, with future extensions to Cloverdale and Larkspur planned.

Dangerous roads

In one December week, a schoolgirl and an elderly woman in Petaluma and a schoolgirl in Santa Rosa, were struck by vehicles and seriously injured.

They were just the latest in a string of accidents involving pedestrians, at least four of whom died this year, including Alvin Heese, 93, who was struck by a hit-and-run driver in a Sonoma crosswalk on Nov. 7.

And in one six-week stretch through May and June, five cyclists were killed in vehicle-versus-bicycle accidents in the North Bay.

The death in July of a Modesto man bicycling on Fountain Grove Parkway brought the number to six for the year. Then in August, a Ukiah psychiatrist was killed in a crash involving a dump truck.

"No one feels safe crossing the street," said Isaac Dolido, referring to a Mission Boulevard crosswalk where his friend Alejandro Torres, 24, was hit by a car as he walked home on an October night.

Torres died a day later, and Dolido and others started a campaign to force safety changes to the crosswalk.

Advocates outraged by the mounting toll started a campaign for new laws that would make it easier for bicyclists or pedestrians to sue motorists who threaten or harass them.

They made gains when Sebastopol this month became the first city in Sonoma County and one of few in the nation to pass such a "vulnerable users" ordinance, which also is to cover skateboarders and roller skaters.

"It's a way to send a message that people who are not in cars have rights too," Councilman Patrick Slayter said. "Just because you are driving a 5,000-pound weapon doesn't mean might makes right."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.

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