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Future for Bodega Bay Fire Protection District uncertain

Firefighters and paramedics. They aren’t really known for just standing around or letting things happen.

They’re action people. No matter what.

That’s the point Lori Anello, wife of Captain Lou Stoerzinger, who serves with both the Two Rock Volunteer Fire Department and Bodega Bay Fire Protection District, was making.

“It is not in their nature to just stand by and be a spectator with a radio in their hand while waiting for additional resources to arrive,” Anello said in her statement.

Anello, along with a handful of wives and community members spoke or wrote on behalf of the safety of the firefighters and paramedics serving in the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District, which is currently facing possible closure due to dwindling revenue sources.

“Despite policy and procedure, despite industry standards and rules, if someone is in trouble, whether trapped in a burning building, my husband and his coworkers will risk everything to save a life,” Anello said.

In recent months, the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District has responded to some dangerous calls:

  • In early April, a car rolled off of Bodega Head
  • Eleven days later, a beloved community chef died in an accident on Highway 1.
  • And yesterday morning, a swimmer went missing off of Duncan’s Coast, just north of Bodega Bay.

Each time the truck is out, only one firefighter is left behind in the station. Nobody feels great about the option.But it’s all they’ve got right now.

“Leaving one firefighter behind is playing a dangerous game when it comes to emergency response and puts the members at a high risk,” Jack Thomas, president of the Professional Firefighters of Sonoma County, said during the March 22 Special Board meeting of the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District.

That special meeting came after Measure B – the community embroiled effort to raise funds for the fire district and west county high school district via transient occupancy tax – failed.

On the agenda of this special meeting? Budget cuts. And more specifically, staffing cuts. Again.

Rhianna Menzies, wife of Josh Menzies, a Bodega Bay firefighter and paramedic, was also getting her turn to speak. Josh has served with Bodega Bay for 6 ½ years and when he was hired, Rhianna said, the district was operating at a 3-0 staff but had a “healthy size of volunteers to make up the difference.”

“Just two years ago the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors agreed to provide funding for a fourth person and fast forward to the failure of Measure B,” Rhianna said. “Now Bodega Bay is forced to cut their staffing to 3-0 once again. But at what cost? Lives are put at risk when a crew is forced to wait for back up because in an emergency, every second counts.”

Over time, county and state policies have limited the resource bucket from which the fire protection district can draw. As a post Proposition-13 district, the district’s AB8 rate is 3.9%, or less than half of the county average. Additionally, the district is limited by what land is actually taxable, since state and county land use policies have rendered roughly 2/3 of the land within the district untaxable.

All told, despite sending more than $10 million to the county in property tax, Bodega Bay receives just $310,000 for its fire protection district. That $310,000 comprises 15% of the fire district’s entire budget. Another 60% comes from a voter approved parcel tax of $524 a parcel, likely one of the highest in the state, according to Dan Drummond.

The other 25% comes from grants and other one-type funding sources, often provided by the County of Sonoma. And still, the county found the district runs $900,000 short.

“That’s enough to keep us just exactly where we are,” Herzberg said.

The goal isn’t the status quo. The goal, as established by LAFCO (the body that creates and dissolves districts), is to consolidate with Sonoma County Fire so that consistent, safe, fully-staffed and equipped trucks and ambulances can service the coast once again. But to get there, Bodega Bay Fire District needs to identify a consistent and reliable source of revenue to the tune of $2.3 million. Without that funding, consolidation -- again, as established by LAFCO -- cannot happen.

In 2016-17, Bodega Bay brought in $2,028,092 according to Sonoma County records, at the old TOT rate of 9% (voters approved a rate increase of 12% in 2018).

“Perhaps the greatest factor in the failure was a backlash against tourism and the fact that the vast majority of our services were used by non-resident, non-parcel owners,” BBFPD Assistant Chief Steve Herzberg wrote in a letter to County Auditors in August 2020.

In the same letter, Herzberg writes ‘the future of the district is threatened by factors beyond its control,” including the fact that more than 80% of the districts transports are for non-residents or tourists.

Bodega Bay has consistently contributed over $2 million each year to the County in funds generated by transient occupancy taxes, often called TOT.

TOT funds are discretionary, which means the Board of Supervisors gets to decide how to spend it, as long as it is for a legitimate county expense.

That’s why many residents and business owners in Bodega Bay have called upon the County time and again to allocate transient occupancy tax (TOT) dollars back into the district.

“If is far past the time for the County of Sonoma and the State of California to pitch in their share,” Thomas said. “I would like to call on the County of Sonoma to take immediate and permanent steps to assure the funding that Bodega Bay Fire needs to keep the coast safe.”

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins explained to constituents over social media on Wednesday night what a path forward could look like and assured that next steps are in action:

“I’ve been working closely with the CAO’s office and hope to secure bridge funding to a future countywide fire sales tax measure in 2022, and a “glide path” to consolidation as I’ve previously discussed with BBFPD. This effort will need the support of a majority of the Board of Supervisors so it’s great to see the community stepping up advocacy. We have to achieve a sustainable future for Fire and EMS in Bodega Bay.“

In the meantime, the town is rallying.

A new fundraising and education effort is doubling down awareness of the years-long effort to consolidate and find a meaningful and sustainable future for Bodega Bay fire and safety for the coast.

Founded by Waves of Compassion, a local Bodega Bay nonprofit, the website urges residents and visitors alike to take the following four steps:

  1. Contact the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors
  2. Sign the petition to save Bodega Bay Fire Protection District
  3. Contribute to Bodega Bay Fire Protection District
  4. Tell your friends and family about the financial crisis

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