The crowd of 200-plus made up primarily of area businesspeople liked what they heard.

The new Sonoma County Administrator Veronica Ferguson told the Sonoma County Alliance membership meeting it was "sad" that county government was the area's largest employer, with 3,750 workers. She welcomed the day when it was a company like Agilent Technologies, Medtronic CardioVascular or some other private enterprise that would surpass it.

The former Solano County executive pledged to the room that "we are going to listen to you." She talked about the need for "permanent solutions" to the ongoing budget crisis and for "fiscal discipline."

"This organization can be smaller," she said.

These comments come from an administrator who faces a daunting budget gap. In just the matter of months between when she took the job and today, the budget deficit has grown from $36 million to $48 million to its current $61 million. And that's if the state doesn't take any more money. And no one really knows where and when the bleeding will stop.

When it comes to feeling the impacts of the Great Recession, government entities appear to be trailing the private economy by about 18 months to two years. Property values, and the taxes that come from them, are likely to remain depressed for the foreseeable future. And the scarcity of new building, some of it being held back by the decisions of local governments facing budget deficits, means little or no new sources of property taxes.

The county is attacking the shortfall by cutting staff, department budgets, vendor contracts and, controversially, raising fees on building projects.

But more than one person in the audience doubted that would be enough. Something more fundamental, a remaking of what we know as government, was needed.

One business owner commented that she had been trying to pencil out the regulatory costs of a project for five years. And now, she said, the county proposed doubling development fees. (The fee hikes subsequently were cut in half by supervisors on Tuesday.)

 Last week, a long-time acquaintance left a voicemail asking why this space was always so negative about government? (Actually, that's not true, but, OK.)  After all, he said, government does a lot of good. And he is correct, whether it is help for abandoned or abused children or incredible and courageous rescues or high-performing schools, government performs many services with great skill.

But what has business and other people concerned is that government overall has become so bloated, so inefficient, so unresponsive and so fiscally irresponsible that it is threatening the very private-sector prosperity that feeds it.

Indeed, for every tax-producing, job-creating project like the one mentioned in the meeting that has been stalled five years, there are many, many others both known and unknown that could be under way today.

No one is saying government isn't important or needed or that rules aren't necessary.

It's the amount that is needed or necessary. And what this recession has revealed, with apologies to the gentleman who left the voicemail, is a deep and troubling imbalance.


Brad Bollinger is Business Journal editor in chief and associate publisher. He can be reached at 707-521-4251 or bbollinger@busjrnl.com.