The Bodega Bay Fire Protection District’s two chiefs have won approval from the board of directors to continue discussions on consolidating with Sonoma County Fire District on May 14.
Fire Chief Sean Grinnell and Assistant Chief Stephen J. Herzberg are in talks with Sonoma County Fire District Chief Mark Heine on the options for the future. Herzberg said consolidation efforts have been going on since 2014, and they were given money from the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in January this year.
“Within two years they expect to see something meaningful happen. We’re in the fifth month of that first year, and it takes time to do these things,” Herzberg said.
Herzberg said he and Grinnell met with Heine at an initial meeting to go over synergies and were asked to do a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis. In preparation, Herzberg looked at previous analyses from 15 to 20 years ago. He said the main issue from several past evaluations had been the board of directors.
“It was great to put down our board as a strength. People saw it as a weakness and possibly a threat; they didn’t think they could change it,” Herzberg said.
The district’s current board of directors includes David Kruppa, Charlie Bone, David Lowe, Shay Pickton and President Liz Martin. The group meets on the second Tuesday of each month at 6 p.m. in the district building on 510 Highway 1.
The upside of joining Sonoma County Fire District, Herzberg said, is that the district wants Bodega Bay for all the right reasons. One of those reasons is to have Grinnell, because of his experience in running an advanced life support system. Grinnell would also be able to help manage volunteer companies, and Herzberg said he thinks one of the county’s gold standards is its volunteer program.
“What he needs is our paramedics and our experience of running a paramedic system in this community. He’s been very outward about that,” Herzberg said.
At the last meeting, Pickton made a motion to continue discussions with Sonoma County Fire District, and Kruppa seconded it. Remaining board members were all in favor.
“That is a continuation to pursue, but not to sign, seal and delivery anything. As a board we agree we’ll go forward and see where this thing plays out,” Pickton said.
Bone said there are challenges and concerns with politics, like what happens to boards and districts, but in the meantime, continuing talks makes sense. Love agreed and said from opportunities of the last few years, this one sounds the best.
Herzberg said that even if the district consolidates, that doesn’t end their biggest fight, which is the need for revenue. A big part of the district’s revenue comes from ambulances.
“One of our goals is to make sure we have sound financial future, so we can put the mirrors away and quit trying to balance the budget that way,” Martin said.
Sonoma County Fire District made its debut on April 6 when the Bennett Valley, Rincon Valley, Mountain and Windsor fire districts became one entity.
After being sworn in as fire chief at Sonoma County Fire District’s May 16 meeting, Heine later shared his thoughts on consolidation efforts. With Bodega Bay, Heine said there are a few hurdles that would be present for the district.
One issue is the operational side, being able to serve a fire station that is a lot further away from the main hub, and the other is Bodega Bay’s high parcel tax.
“There’s a lot of work that has to be looked at before we would go too far down the road with Bodega Bay Fire District,” Heine said.
Both Sonoma County Fire District and Bodega Bay are considering other annexation options, though this potential merger seems the best fit at present.
At their meeting, Heine said the district would provide fire chief administrative support and executive leadership services to Russian River Fire Protection District starting in June, and that the Russian River board of directors is interested in annexation by the district.
Forestville Fire Protection District is another option for annexation, and Heine said he made a presentation at its May 14 board of director’s meeting.
“I think they were more interested in an initial dialogue and have some things to think about as to whether they’re interested in pursuing that or not,” Heine said.
Bodega Bay also has other choices on the table. A less likely consolidation opportunity for Bodega Bay is with Petaluma and Rancho Adobe fire districts. Herzberg said it was a solid operational plan that had some difficulties.
Another opportunity was with Gold Ridge Fire Protection District, whose volunteer companies currently cover Bodega Bay. Martin said Gold Ridge is hiring a fire chief, while she and Herzberg both agree there’s a good thing going operationally.
Pickton said the board chairman of Gold Ridge seems focused on the “this is the way they’ve always done things” mentality.
“That environment would be difficult to consolidate with. I would be concerned about their board, not about the operational relationship,” Pickton said.
Herzberg said the last option is for the district to try and remain standalone.
During the meeting, Grinnell swore in firefighter and medic Kayla Neel-Grant and went over the draft audit for the 2017-18 year with the board of directors. In total expenditures the district spent $2,117,946 and its total revenue was $2,091,247 for an overall loss of $26,699. While over budget, everything was right on track, except employee salaries and benefits were off by $10,000.
Pickton motioned to vote on approving the draft audit, with Kruppa seconding and the remaining board members all in favor.
“Our budgeting is really close in terms of what was expected. The auditor gave us kudos for that,” Grinnell said.