Nov 3, 2019
by Vesta Copestakes
The second anniversary for one of the deadliest wildfires in CA history has come and gone, with deep reflections and emotions still raw in our community. We learned during the October 2017 Sonoma County firestorms that readiness and coordination are not to be taken lightly.
Our community has sought new ways to prevent fire by power lines, and we’ve added the word resilience into our daily dictionary. Hundreds of people have attended emergency preparedness training on Saturday afternoons countywide. We continue to see our firefighters as the Heroes of October.
In Western Sonoma County, a host of fire departments are seeking voter approval of parcel taxes to add paid staffing to their ranks, and find new ways to prepare our communities for the threat of not only wildfire, but also medical needs of an aging population that increasingly demands urban-like services for medical and emergency needs in rural areas.
Voting has been open for the West Sonoma County Fire Departments of Gold Ridge, Graton, and Occidental since October 7th, with all three departments seeking voter approval of parcel taxes to bolster services. While the three measures are unique funding strategies, there are commonalities shared across districts.
All three fire departments cite increasing call volumes placing pressure on the emergency service delivery provided mostly by all-volunteer departments. Gold Ridge is one of the only departments in West County with paid staff, currently placing two firefighters at Twin Hills and Hessel stations. All three departments will hire career firefighters for their stations, with slightly different positions of priority. For Gold Ridge, paramedic firefighters to address ambulance response delays; for Occidental, daytime staffing has reached a critical danger point that must be addressed; and for Graton, call volume exceeded reasonable expectations for volunteers many years ago, and can no longer be ignored.
Additionally, the need for community education and action around wildfire prevention has come as a strong drumbeat from fire service leadership as well as the public, creating a near-universal acceptance of program creation. How it is funded comes down to urgency and timing.
The existing volunteer programs for each of these districts remain critical to their success, and all have stated intentions to put resources into training and retention of existing volunteer ranks. The affordable housing crisis and high cost of living show little signs of easing up for Sonoma County and the Bay Area in general, which has made it doubly hard to keep young and able-bodied volunteer firefighters on the rosters at the firehouses.
There is talk coming from the County of Sonoma of a ½ cent sales tax countywide to augment existing fire and emergency services in Sonoma County. The details of this plan are not currently final, nor is the measure even confirmed on the ballot yet. However, it is known that fire departments will have to 1) Have an existing parcel tax, and 2) Individual fire departments will have to be actively consolidating in order to be eligible for the supplemental funding. That is, each community has to be contributing to its fire department before any potential sales tax funding would be made available to local fire departments, like Gold Ridge, Graton, or Occidental.
Additionally, the possible countywide sales tax includes voters in Santa Rosa, who are ~40% of the voting population in the county. Santa Rosa residents already pay a ¼ cent sales tax for police and fire (Measure O). If the countywide sales tax makes it to the ballot, it may or may not pass, as it will need to achieve 2/3 voter support at the crowded ballot box with SMART Train and other possible funding measures competing for voter attention and approval... Therefore, Gold Ridge, Graton and Occidental Fire Departments decided to take care of their own communities, and move forward with local funding proposals for each district to guarantee their local funding.
There has been significant discussion happening for the past three years on district consolidations. Operationally, the three fire departments with measures on the ballot already act as one fire agency by providing mutual aid and sharing of equipment and leadership across district boundaries. In a scary “fire week” this October, multiple major structure fires and vegetation fires happened in each of the districts, some on red flag days, and the neighboring districts came to the aid of the home district.
How will the passage of a parcel tax now impact a future consolidation? Simply stated, bypassing a measure in a local fire district, it puts residents and local firefighters in the best possible position to determine their own future. If future consolidation is a good option, local districts can retain some local control where two or more healthy districts are looking at a merger to create better service delivery for residents and the public they serve.
In the event that a district does not pass a local funding measure, it is very possible that the same district may be compelled into a situation where they go along with annexation by a neighboring district that does have a healthy parcel tax. Through the annexation process at the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), a newly annexed district can have the annexing district’s parcel tax structure “pasted” across the new parcels, without those voters going to the polls to approve the tax. This is a scenario that the Board of Directors for Graton Fire, Occidental Fire and Gold Ridge Fire are seeking to avoid.
For example, If Gold Ridge’s Measure E fails, and the County of Sonoma sales tax measure passes, Gold Ridge may be forced to consolidate with another district like Bodega Bay ($530/parcel) Or Rancho Adobe ($300/parcel) in order to close service gaps and to become eligible for the possible future county sales tax funding. The parcel tax rates from Bodega Bay or Rancho Adobe would be applied to parcels in the Gold Ridge district via consolidation proceedings. These rates are higher than what Gold Ridge Fire is currently proposing, and could occur without a vote of the people under this scenario.
Several taxpayer protections are built into Measures C, E, and F. All funds collected are restricted to fire and emergency services use for the district of origin. The publicly elected Board of Directors of the fire districts are accountable to their local voters, and have been managing the fund accounts for these departments for the past 50-100 years, on mostly shoestring budgets fueled by pancake breakfasts, pasta feeds, and the small amount that comes back from the local property taxes. There is also a publicly noticed rate-setting hearing that will occur annually for each of the fire districts, should their taxes earn voter support.
Ultimately, it comes back to local control of tax dollars and oversight for voters, as well as answering the question of what level of service is acceptable to those who live here. The model of an all-volunteer fire department is no longer delivering what most would call acceptable; the question is whether 2/3s of voters will agree to the current proposals.
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