Fire district consolidation planning moves forward
The heroic job done by Sonoma County fire fighters and emergency responders during the October 2017 wildfires couldn’t mask an underlying truth – that the county’s multiple fire departments, operating quasi-independently, were overwhelmed by the immense conflagration that ravaged over 5,000 homes and took 25 lives. The many problems that became obvious after the event are energizing countywide action to improve fire and emergency protection – and finding a way to pay for it.
The first step being considered is consolidating the 30-plus rural fire agencies throughout the county. Each agency has its own board of directors and its own funding sources – usually some form of parcel tax plus state and federal largesse. Each agency hires, equips and trains their own firefighters… the list goes on.
Today’s fire fighting agencies have deep roots in the volunteer fire brigades that historically protected isolated farms and villages. Today’s highly-trained firefighting cadres proudly embrace their long traditions of public service and their unique identities which are difficult, and sometimes painful, to submerge into a bland, bureaucratic regional operation.
Nevertheless, a perfect storm of problems is forcing change. The demand for protection and emergency services has far outstripped the funds available to pay for it. The volunteers who formerly staffed many fire departments are no longer around. People young and healthy enough to be firefighters commute to jobs too far away to respond to the siren. Or they can’t afford high-priced country homes. The amount of training required for operating high-tech fire fighting equipment is daunting at best, and prohibitive for many potential recruits.
Whether caused by climate change or more people living in woodland areas, or both, California’s increased fire danger has been made obvious with brutal effectiveness after the record-breaking fires over the past two years, and with no end in sight.
“Today, citizens don’t care what color or name is on the fire or rescue vehicle that shows up for their emergency,” Kenwood Fire Chief Daren Bellach said. “They want quick response, adequate personnel with the right equipment and training on how to use it.”
The Kenwood Fire Department is practically a poster child for the state of rural firefighting in Sonoma County. Formally recognized as a separate district in 1945, it is the fourth oldest fire district in the county.
The recent expansion of the Kenwood Fire Protection District’s (KFPD) Board of Directors, from three to five members, anticipates the big task ahead to centralize the county’s fire services.
Daymon Doss, one of those new directors, attended the three-day Fire District Association of California conference in Napa in early April.
“Every single one of them was talking about consolidation, every lecture we heard was about consolidation, reorganization, regionalization – whatever you want to call it – they are talking about it,” Doss said, adding, “At the last Sonoma County Fire Districts Association meeting in Cloverdale, (consolidation) was the topic of conversation. It included a presentation by Mark Bramfitt of LAFCO. From what I’ve observed in my three months on the board, we have an ongoing interest in educating ourselves about what it all means.”
The Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), which oversees all special districts, including fire districts, is currently performing a Municipal Service Review for all the region’s fire agencies, the first step to forming a regional district.
The district’s new fire engine – the first in 20 years – cost about $800,000 and it will take special training to use all of its sophisticated equipment.
The new engine was partially paid for with generous donations from area residents after the October 2017 wildfire, the fire that sped up the call to improve the county’s fire and emergency services.
While the KFPD’s board worked hard for many years to retain a healthy reserve fund, financing modern equipment can’t be done with pancake breakfasts and crab feeds much longer.
Prior efforts at coming to some kind of countywide agreement were hampered by the fact that every fire chief in the county served on the committee, which finally opted for a regional plan: first merge all the agencies within each of the county’s seven designated fire fighting regions, and work out a single system later.
In March of this year, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors adopted a countywide goal, calling it the “Silver Plan,” which aims to increase the number of paid first responders from 400 to approximately 575, at a cost of approximately $42 million per year. But first, regional consolidations are going forward. The supervisors also put up $4.6 million for planning and support.
“This process has been going on for years,” Kenwood Fire Chief Daren Bellach said, acknowledging the speed up in post-fire consolidation efforts. “Everybody from Region Three is included in the talks.” Region Three includes the Kenwood, Glen Ellen, Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority, Schell-Vista, and Mayacamas fire departments. Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue also includes the City of Sonoma. The Region Three agencies meet once a month to work on the issue and have decided to push ahead with consolidation.
Bellach noted that changing demographics are a major part of the push to merge.
“There are more elderly people and a higher number of second homes, with more calls every year, primarily medical calls,” he noted.
“There needs to be a minimum of four trained and certified firefighters at the scene (of a structural fire),” Bellach said. “Nobody goes in alone or without backup. This has been hard to do with the current resources.”
Kenwood and Schell-Vista are currently looking for six new engineers/paramedics. While local districts already share some people, equipment and training, Bellach said a regional solution would improve training and deployment and come up with a stronger volunteer recruitment plan.
The scenario being considered is that all the districts would merge into one chosen district, which would be governed by the chosen district’s rules and tax base, in this case Glen Ellen Fire. All the money would go to the new regional district, including tax funds, a source of lingering resistance to merger plans.
Kenwood property owners pay about $40 annually for fire services, which provides the district with about $40,000 a year, Bellach said.
Last year, Glen Ellen voters approved a benefit tax of up to $200 per year, and its board is considering a $150-per-parcel rate for the immediate future. Since Glen Ellen is the chosen district from Region Three, that tax rate would apply to all property owners in the new, bigger district.
Once the fire district boards formally agree to merge their districts, it goes to LAFCO. If LAFCO approves, based on the Municipal Service Review analyses of each district, the decision goes to everyone in every district.
Mark Bramfitt, executive director of LAFCO, said that both registered voters and property owners would be notified of the impending district mergers by mail. If 25 percent of either group protest, the issue will go to a vote. Only property owners would participate in that vote, since the tax is passed on land ownership. He indicated that the issue may be ready for a vote as soon as 2020.
A single, regional district would mean an increase in Level of Service ratings that directly impact fire insurance ratings. A higher rating means lower costs, usually. It would also improve opportunities for regular volunteers to get certification through training, which would then allow them to be paid for calls, Bramfitt said.
“The longterm benefits include reducing turnover, better recruiting and retaining people longer,” Bramfitt concluded.
“We need to come up with sustainable, reliable, effective and efficient emergency response regardless of jurisdiction,” Bellach said.