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News: 02/01/2019

Fire plan proposal roasted by three supes

Sales tax planning moves forward, other items put off a month

What Supervisor David Rabbitt saw as a super start to the county’s long-awaited master fire planning fragmented after an inept appeal for passage from its shepherd, Jim Coangelo, goaded Supervisor James Gore into cutting the proposal into two parts. The process of unifying the county’s fire fighting systems will not be derailed, just delayed a few weeks.

Rabbitt, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, along with interim County Fire and Emergency Services Administrator Coangelo, wanted to see a package that included a potential half-cent sales tax; the combining of four fire districts by enabling a property tax transfer between two of the fire districts; and $7 million for staffing, administration and new equipment purchases for several other fire districts. They got part of that, along with funding to develop a “Comprehensive Vehicle Apparatus Replacement Program for all Fire Agencies within the County.”

Gore, Fourth District Supervisor for the north county, became incensed after Coangelo warned that failure to pass the whole package would amount to a failure of the years-long progress made by an unwieldy amalgamation of 70 fire chiefs and stakeholders.

“I refute the idea that the wheels on the bus explode and everyone has failed fire services,” Gore said.

The plan was presented in its final form on Jan. 22, a week before the Jan. 29 hearing, allowing scant time for review. Firefighters, who said they had little or no input into the plan, had even less time to look it over, receiving their copy on Jan. 25. The report was compiled by the Strategic Leadership Group of the fire districts working on future fire planning.

The first three parts of the plan were approved on a 3-1 vote, with Rabbitt holding out for the total package. Supervisor Lynda Hopkins is on maternity leave.

The three parts of the plan approved are 1) going forward with planning for a half-cent sales tax that could raise up to $42 million a year to fund the county’s fire services improvement plans; 2) working on consolidating the county’s 39 fire protection districts into a single entity; and 3) authorizing a property tax transfer and other annual payments to enable a four-district consolidation approved by the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) last November. LAFCO is an independent agency that has jurisdiction over formation and alterations of special districts within California counties.

Without the tax, which will have to be approved by voters, the county has nowhere near enough to fund the fire services plans under consideration, according to the report presented Tuesday.

Windsor Fire Protection District will receive the property taxes now going to the Mountain Fire District (the Calistoga Road area northeast of Santa Rosa), along with annual payments of $1,589,713 (with annual adjustments), and a one-time payment of $500,000 to form the new Sonoma County Fire District that would also include Rincon Valley and Bennett Valley fire protection districts.

Supervisors Gorin, Gore and the Third District’s Shirlee Zane pushed the pause button for further clarification of the more complex, expensive items in the package presented Tuesday. The county may well be running a budget deficit in the coming fiscal year and they are concerned about the whole budget, which they will begin deliberating this spring.

One of the delayed proposals would appropriate $4.6 million to the Gold Ridge Fire Protection District to increase staffing and provide fire management services for 11 volunteer fire departments, a model for regional consolidation which was considered to be the best way to start to overhaul the county’s fire programs.

“The consideration of how we support the volunteer fire companies may be a little premature because we have some issues with some areas,” Gorin said. “I would like to see where they land and what we need to do to support the remaining volunteer fire companies. I’m absolutely supportive of ensuring that they have this support that they need to professionalize – and staff up if that is what is needed eventually to get to perhaps a countywide model.”

She called for the county’s Chief Administrative Officer to work with Coangelo to determine if “what is being requested is appropriate and how we can phase in the funding for some of these items moving forward to a revenue measure.”

The delayed elements also include putting off the final dismemberment of the county’s existing Fire and Emergency Services, almost universally despised by fire fighting districts throughout the county for inefficiency and the amounts they have been paying out to support it.

Coangelo stepped into the job of interim director in August, 2017, two months before the October fires, following the resignation of Chief Al Terrell. Since then, the department’s staff of 24 people has been reduced by 75 percent, anticipating its ultimate closure and the creation of a different entity to oversee the county’s fire fighting system.

The supervisors also want further study of a proposal for funds to help Kenwood, Bodega Bay, Cloverdale and Geyserville provide permanent two-person staffing for fire engines – that’s an engineer and captain in each truck that is dispatched. These funds would also develop a master capital improvement plan for fire stations in the county, a comprehensive apparatus replacement program, and a look at what’s needed for long-term financial stability. The county will also authorize studying leasing versus buying equipment in the future.

Kenwood Fire Chief Daren Bellach said that he has enough people to staff all the calls with two people, but only if he takes part in the rotation. “We’re looking forward to hiring another person so I don’t have to do that,” he said. The Chief should be available at all times to manage whatever comes up.

The supervisors expect the delayed items will be returned to the Board for their March 12 regular meeting.


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