NAPA VALLEY (California) REGISTER

March 21, 2017

 

Proposed legislation would boost Napa County farmworker housing

 

By Henry Lutz

 

Two bills making their way through the state Legislature are seeking to boost funding for Napa County’s farmworker housing centers.

The bills, coauthored by state Senator Bill Dodd, D-Napa, and Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, are a dual effort to secure the first state funding for the county’s farmworker housing program while allowing Napa grape growers to assess themselves at a higher rate than current legislation permits.

The added funding would support the county’s three farmworker housing centers, which host a total 180 workers and are operated now with an annual deficit that the county erases with funds from other sources.

“In my opinion, we’ve exhausted what we can do locally,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Alfredo Pedroza. “So now that’s why we’re looking for the state to be a partner in it.”

The county’s farmworker housing centers are funded by an annual $10-per-acre self-assessment from vineyard owners, paired with $13-a-day rent from the centers’ farmworker tenants. The state has yet to provide any funding for the centers since the present funding system was enacted in 2002.

Assembly Bill 317, if passed, would channel up to $250,000 in matching state funds to the Napa County Housing Authority, which operates the housing centers.

“Napa’s farmworker housing program is a perfect example of how the community, local government, grape growers and farmworkers can work together to support the workers in our agricultural region,” said Assemblywoman Aguiar-Curry in a release announcing the bills’ introduction last month.

“This one-of-a-kind program is critical to our farmworkers and the whole grape growing industry, but relies solely on local funding sources and rent.”

The bills are the third attempt to secure state funding in as many years, Rex Stults, government relations director of the Napa Valley Vintners, pointed out. The Vintners are supporting the pair of bills, along with the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, the Napa County Farm Bureau and Winegrowers of Napa County.

While past attempts proved unsuccessful, Stults said, “We got an earlier start this year. I think our approach is better than it has been the last two years and having the support of Senator Dodd and Assemblymember Aguiar-Curry both coming at it from slightly different perspectives, but perspectives that complement one another, is very important and I feel better about the chances this year than the last two years.”

“In the grand scheme of things, $250,000 (in state funding) is budget dust,” Stults said. “But it would be meaningful to us here in Napa County.

Accompanying the pursuit for state funding is the move to allow vineyard owners to gradually increase their per-acre self-assessments from the present $10 up to $15 via Senate Bill 240.

“That’s one of the lessons we learned along the way is that our likelihood of success would increase if we … brought something even more than we’ve already done to the table,” Stults said.

While the bill would raise the cap on the annual assessments, any increases would have to be approved in a vote by the vineyard owners. Increases would also be incremental and would not be pushed to $15-per-acre all at once, both Stults and Pedroza said.

Tied to the rising assessments would also be the per-day rent for farmworkers living at the centers, which would increase dollar for dollar as the per-acre assessments gained approval.

Per the potential rise in farmworkers’ rent, Pedroza said, “I think what we’ve realized is there’s not one group that should shoulder the burden.”

In addition to farmworker rents and vineyard owners’ self-assessments, community fundraising has also played a key role in sustaining the housing centers, with events like the annual Cinco de Mayo Golf Classic filling some of the voids left by the current system of funding.

The event, now in its 19th year, has raised an average of $40,000 each year throughout its existence, said Pat Garvey, president of Cinco de Mayo Golf Inc., which organizes the event with the Napa Valley Farmworker Committee.

Proceeds from the event go toward maintenance and special projects at the centers that fall outside of the county’s budget. “When something would come up and there’d be a shortfall, we’d pitch in,” Garvey said.

Garvey said proceeds from this year’s event would likely go to roof repairs at the housing center in Calistoga, which, he noted, are likely to total about $100,000.

Even if state money begins to flow to the housing program, Garvey said the event would remain an important source of revenue for the centers’ upkeep. “There’s always a need for funds,” he said.

While the purpose of the state funding would be to sustain the existing centers, Pedroza said, “At the same time I think we also have to keep an open mind. How do we potentially augment the centers? Is there a possibility to expand? Is there a possibility to have a new center? I’m keeping an open mind.”