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Napa seeks state law to raise local farmworker housing assessment
Grape industry

Napa seeks state law to raise local farmworker housing assessment

Farmworker Housing

Farmworkers sit outside one of the residence buildings at the River Ranch Farmworkers Housing Center in St Helena designed for single men.

Napa County will seek state legislation to allow local grape growers to increase an annual, self-imposed assessment that helps pay for farmworker housing.

The county runs three dormitory-style migrant farmworker housing centers with a total of 180 beds. That provides places to live for workers who help make Napa County’s internationally famous wine country possible by tending its vines.

Much of the money for the $1.3 million annual operating cost comes from a $10-per-acre annual assessment paid by vineyard owners and a $13-a-day rent paid by lodgers.

But the centers are running at a loss and savings will run out in a couple of years, former county Housing and Intergovernmental Affairs Director Larry Florin said in September. The county is looking for solutions.

Vineyard owners can’t raise the $10-per-acre assessment because it is capped by state legislation. The Napa County Board of Supervisors on Dec. 20 authorized staff to seek state legislation that would raise the cap to $15 per acre.

Success at the state level wouldn’t automatically raise the assessment, a county report said. Rather, it would enable eligible vineyard owners to vote on a higher assessment.

The move has the support of the wine industry, said Rex Stults of Napa Valley Vintners.

“It kind of comes with a handshake agreement that we don’t foresee see the actual assessments going up by five bucks right away,” Stults said.

Rather, vineyard owners would be asked to phase in the per-acre assessment hikes. The present deficit could be covered by a $1-per-acre increase mirrored by a $1 increase in the daily rent paid by farmworkers, he said.

On a related note, Stults said that the state pays tens of millions of dollars for farmworker housing in the Central Valley. Napa County receives no annual state payments and seems to get penalized for being so innovative and successful with its program, he said.

“We would really like to change that dynamic,” Stults said.

The Board of Supervisors agreed. It also authorized staff to seek state money to help support the local program through the Office of Migrant Services or other housing funding sources.

“We’ve been to Sacramento and everyone thinks Napa is so well-off,” Board Chairman Alfredo Pedroza said.

But Napa County has a successful model because the growers, farmworkers and the county all contribute. The message to Sacramento is that it would be maximizing its investment by investing in Napa, Pedroza said.

The county will work with state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa and Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, on farmworker housing legislation.

Napa County runs the Calistoga, Mondavi and River Ranch centers through a partnership of the Napa County Housing Authority, Napa County Housing Commission and nonprofit California Human Development Corp.

County officials have expressed concern about the farmworker housing budget situation for several years now. Supervisors monitor it when they sit as the Napa County Housing Authority Board of Directors.

An update on the situation came during June budget hearings, as supervisors prepared the pass the 2016-17 farmworker housing budget. Auditor-Controller Tracy Schulze said costs are rising, but revenues are not.

The county has kept the budget in the black by using about $100,000 annually from farmworker housing savings. But those savings are predicted to dwindle to nothing over the next few years, barring any changes.

“We are doing everything we can to maintain costs and keep our costs low, but we are also needing to look for additional revenue sources,” Schulze told supervisors.

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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.

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