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Sonoma County Allots $39.2M for Addressing COVID Inequity

The California county’s Board of Supervisors approved millions in federal pandemic funding for 27 local projects that aimed to uplift communities that were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

(TNS) — The Sonoma County, Calif., Board of Supervisors this week approved the infusion of $39.2 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds into 27 projects aimed at aiding communities disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The funds are part of a $96 million allocation Sonoma County received under the federal American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill approved in March 2021 to help the U.S. recover from the effects of COVID-19.

Of that money, $39.2 million has been set aside for the county's Community Resilience Program.

Following Tuesday's unanimous approval by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, the program will be able to help dozens of community organizations, nonprofits and businesses realize projects to help those who have experienced the greatest health and economic disparities during the pandemic.

That designation includes farmworkers and other essential workers, as well as, students and business owners of color.

Projects that serve racial and ethnic communities with the highest rates of local COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths per capita — Hispanic, Latino, Black, American Indian and Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders — were also prioritized.

Winning proposals range from a program that would pay to train and recruit child care providers to a Small Business Equity & Recovery program for nearly 5,000 small businesses, particularly those run by people of color.

"We've never put this much money on the table and I can't wait to see it work on the ground and also track it over the course of the year — three years — while providing capacity building," Sonoma County Board Chair James Gore said.

Selecting the winning projects for the Community Resilience Program was a novel process for the county, Lindsay Franco, an equity and social justice data analyst with the Sonoma County Office of Equity, said during Tuesday's board meeting.

Instead of relying on a request for proposals, which solicits bids from vendors for specific work, county staff opted to use a notification of funding availability. That process was seen as being simpler to navigate and allowed a broader range of organizations to apply for the funding, Franco said.

Meetings with community organizations about the available funding, and related written information, was accessible in more than one language, Franco said.

Additionally, the disproportionate impact on the communities that faced the highest COVID-19 case rates, hospitalizations and deaths was at the forefront of the work.

"Staff understood that to achieve different outcomes, we had to do things differently," Franco said.

Each of the project proposals needed to fall within 10 priority areas identified by the county, such as educational disparity, food assistance, mental health, housing and small business and nonprofit aid.

The proposals were reviewed by 33 volunteers from diverse backgrounds, who assigned each application points based on specific criteria, such as the program's design, level of proposed collaboration with other organizations and service to census tracts disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

The Portrait of Sonoma County, a community-wellness report that uses data to show disparities among various demographic groups, was presented to each volunteer ahead of the review. While the report showed some gains for county residents as a whole, it also highlighted gaps in health, education and wealth among racial, ethnic, gender and geographic lines.

A review committee made up of six volunteers from the larger group of 33 made the final project recommendations based on the total amount that was requested in each of the priority areas versus the amount of funding that was available.

Once the money is awarded, the organizations carrying out the projects will need to work with the county to develop performance measures that track the impact of each program, county staff said.

"We will make sure that these proposals ... are doing what they say they will do, and serve the communities they say they will serve," said Oscar Chavez, the assistant director of the Sonoma County Department of Human Services.

Among the projects funded is one proposed by the Russian River Alliance, which was granted $390,000 to build a public Wi-Fi mesh network in the rural communities of Jenner, Bodega Bay, Bodega, Forestville and Cazadero in west Sonoma County for five years.

The project is an expansion of a pilot program the alliance plans to launch in downtown Guerneville this June, said Bryan Hughes, the organization's chief financial officer.

It addresses issues that came up during the pandemic, in which low-cost internet access became a barrier for students and employees doing remote work.

It also alleviates concerns about Wi-Fi access during emergencies because the network will rely on technology that is solar and battery powered, or that has the capacity to operate on a generator. Power outages have been a common occurrence during recent local emergencies.

"(It's addressing) the issue of education, equitable access to the internet and the lack of broadband, but it goes well beyond what COVID demonstrated," Hughes said. "But we're also dealing with 'what happens when we have a fire?'"

The Sonoma County Black Forum, a volunteer-run nonprofit, will serve as the fiscal lead for two of the projects awarded funding on Tuesday.

Working with several other local organizations and businesses, the group will launch a yearlong Sonoma County Black Therapy Fund to pay for culturally responsive mental health services. The program, which the forum hopes to extend past the one year of county funding, was awarded $574,200 and will serve about 220 people, said forum co-founder Regina Brennan.

The group will also work collaboratively to launch an emergency financial assistance program, which will grant upwards of 200 residents in Sonoma County $1,200 to pay for rent, food and gas.**

Brennan said survey responses from more than 120 residents at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic were part of the reason why the Sonoma County Black Forum and its partners submitted proposals for the two projects. Rental and mortgage assistance, as well as help with paying for health care, were among the greatest needs.

"We've never been invited (by the county) to participate at this level, but we're happy to do so," Brennan said, adding that the county did a significant amount of community engagement leading up to the project selection process. "The need is there and we're going to provide the resources."

Several Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday acknowledged that the need in the community far-out paced the funds made available. Staff reported that it received $177 million in requests from the community, more than four times the amount that was available.

**Correction: Any Sonoma County resident will be able to apply for emergency financial assistance through the project led by the Sonoma County Black Forum. A previous version of this article incorrectly described who will be served by the program.

(c)2022 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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