Marin, a Year from Now

Last year, despite the global economic crisis, I predicted Marin would not change much in 2010. Generally, I was right. Foreclosures did not cripple residential real estate; home prices are rebounding after falling as much as 25 percent; and commercial vacancies did not overwhelm our downtowns.

I also noted that Paradise Foods would open in Ignacio (it did); Woodlands Market would expand into Tiburon-Belvedere (it opens early next year); and there would be no water rationing in 2010 (ditto for 2011).

On the miscue side, I hailed the opening of Disney’s ImageMovers Digital in Hamilton (it will close in early 2011 and lay off all 450 employees); and I stated the county’s $430 million budget would remain mostly intact (it now faces a $20 million shortfall).

I also said SMART, the eco-friendly commuter rail line from the Larkspur ferry terminal to northern Sonoma County, was on track and that its Cal Park tunnel between Larkspur Landing and San Rafael would open as a bicycle-pedestrian path in May  2010. Well, thanks to the economic downturn, SMART now has a $155 million shortfall and, while the Cal Park tunnel has been successfully re-bored (to the tune of $25 million), it won’t open to bikers and hikers until late this summer.

As a prognosticator, I’ll give myself a B.

Next up: how will the county look a year from now?

For the Marin Energy Authority, the county’s controversial green alternative to PG&E, the big question is how will this year’s June 8 ballot play out? Though MEA is not on the ballot, Proposition 16 is. If approved, this measure would require a challenging two-thirds popular vote victory before a public power agency similar to MEA could be formed. This will likely kill such efforts throughout the state. Therefore MEA would be California’s only such agency. Meanwhile, only a minority of MEA’s customers will have had a chance to go green with MEA or “opt out” and stay with PG&E. Without similar agencies in California, the market for power generated from renewable sources (solar, wind, biomass, etc.) will be severely limited.

However, here’s my prediction: voters being confused and California newspapers editorializing against Prop. 16 will result in its not passing. Thus, a year from now, MEA will have connected with all its ratepayers and be California’s first—but not likely its only—publicly owned clean energy agency.

As for the county’s much-discussed $20 million budget deficit (less than 5 percent of the budget): this will not directly affect Marin’s average resident, especially if he or she has a job. “Unfortunately,” says County Administrator Matthew Hymel, “county services such as job training, child care, substance abuse services, and welfare payments—which are largely funded by the state—will be substantially reduced.” In other words, when it’s most needed, the county’s safety net may not be there. And that’s indeed unfortunate, but Marin’s many nonprofits could pick up some of the shortfall.

Also lost are some 170 county staff positions from a payroll approaching 2,000 positions. So, expect longer lines and slower service at Civic Center offices. The $20 million deficit, says Hymel, results from lower sales tax revenue (–10 percent), decreasing property values (–2 percent) and losses incurred by the county’s pension fund investments (–17 percent). “However, our pensions are still 80 percent funded,” Hymel says, “and overall, we’re in better shape than most California counties.”

Finally, changes to Marin’s political landscape—which many believe are overdue—will play out in 2011. In the county’s First Supervisorial District, incumbent Susan Adams is being challenged by former Marin Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni. This will be close—and that’s good for Marin’s politics.

The future’s most intriguing possible political alteration involves our effective state senator–state assemblyman duo of Mark Leno and Jared Huffman. Leno seems favored to be San Francisco’s next mayor (assuming Gavin Newsom wins California’s lieutenant governor’s race this November). Meanwhile, Huffman says he’s “very interested” in Lynn Woolsey’s congressional seat (assuming Woolsey, who’ll be 75 when starting her 20th year in Congress, retires). “It’s Lynn’s decision to make,” says Huffman. “I’d never challenge her.”

That said, except for the probable emergence of the Marin Energy Authority, I maintain Marin in 2011 will live much as it did in 2010. Ours is a resilient county. That’s my point of view. What’s yours?

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