Farmworker Housing (copy) (copy)

A farmworker watches TV while he eats dinner at the River Ranch Farmworkers Housing Center in St. Helena in 2015. Grape growers in Napa County will be voting to maintain an assessment on vineyards to support three farmworker center.

Napa County grape growers owning an acre or more of vineyards will soon be voting-by-mail on whether to continue a farmworker housing assessment for another five years.

The existing, annual $10-per-acre assessment on 45,000 acres of grapes raises about $450,000 each year. This money helps run three farmworker housing centers at various locations in Napa Valley. Lodgers pay $13 a night for rent.

But the assessment expires on June 30. The proposed five-year renewal would keep the assessment in place at $10-an-acre through the remainder of the year, with possible increases in the years beyond.

The Calistoga, Mondavi and River Ranch centers each have 60 beds, for a total of 180 beds. County officials say loss of the assessment would endanger the housing program for farmers who tend Napa County’s world-famous vines.

“It really would be catastrophic,” county Housing and Community Development Program Manager Nancy Johnson said.

Ballots to grape growers will be sent out this week, she said. The results of the election will be announced at the July 11 Napa County Board of Supervisors meeting.

State legislation that allowed Napa County to create the assessment district caps the annual charge at $10 an acre. Whether increases can take place in coming years hinges on a bill sponsored by state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa.

This bill winding through the Legislature would increase the cap to $15 an acre. Dodd wrote that rising costs have left the farmworker housing program with an annual deficit of $250,000 to $300,000, sapping reserves for capital needs.

Backing the Dodd bill are Napa Valley Vintners, Napa County Farm Bureau, Napa Valley Grapegrowers and Winegrowers of Napa County, as well as the Napa County Board of Supervisors.

But that proposed $15-an-acre amount is only a cap, not an amount that must be immediately imposed. Rather, a consensus among the county and major wine and farming groups calls for raising the assessment by $1 an acre next year, if the Dodd legislation passes.

Also, the consensus calls for mirroring assessment hikes with the lodging fee hikes. Thus, farmerworkers could in January see their rent also rise $1, from $13 a night to $14 a night.

On March 30, the Napa County Housing Commission discussed what would happen without the assessment and to the three farmworker housing centers.

“What we’ve been trying to do is alleviate a paradigm of people sleeping under bridges or more often crowding into two-bedroom homes,” grape grower and Commissioner Steve Moulds said.

The alternative for some farmworkers is having 12 people living in a small residence, he said.

Closing the farmworker centers would increase traffic, said Santino Garcia of the nonprofit California Human Development Corp., which manages the centers for the county. More workers would be commuting to Napa County from Fairfield and other areas.

Commissioners asked Garcia how lodgers would deal with a possible rent increase of $13 to $14 daily. Garcia said $14 a day for lodging and three meals is still a good deal.

The county is sending out just under 1,900 ballots. Grape grower votes are weighted according to how much of an assessment each grower pays. That means a grape grower paying several thousands dollars of assessments per year has a greater voice at the ballot box than a grower paying a few hundred dollars per year.

State legislation passed in 2001 authorized the Napa County to create the assessment district for farmworker housing. The Board of Supervisors created the district in 2002 and grape growers then approved the $10-an-acre assessment.

The last five-year assessment renewal by grape growers in 2012 passed with a 76 percent positive vote, with a majority vote needed, a county report said.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.