The Russian River Fire Protection District will merge into the newer and larger Sonoma County Fire District (SCFD) under an annexation plan expected to advance when Russian River Fire District directors meet Aug. 14.
“I’m confident it’s the right thing to do to keep costs manageable for district residents,” said Russian River Fire Protection District President Jason Weaver.
Without the annexation, the river fire district faces staff cuts or a major tax hike to keep fire and ambulance services afloat, said Weaver.
“Without some remedy to RRFPD’s financial strains in the next few years, our board faces the reality of reducing staff (and quality of service) or asking taxpayers to vote to double their parcel tax burden,” said Weaver in an email.
Russian River Fire directors say they need as much as twice the current river district’s annual parcel tax of $140 per single-family dwelling just to maintain existing services in the district — not to mention building a needed new firehouse. Replacement of the old Guerneville firehouse on Armstrong Woods Road is now considered a “dire need,” according to a Sonoma County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) report this week on west county fire and emergency services.
The preferred alternative to cuts or tax hikes is to annex the Russian River District into the new Sonoma County Fire District, which is proving to be a “growing successful organization” since its creation this year, said Weaver.
The SCFD was formed by annexing Santa Rosa’s Bennett Valley and Rincon Valley fire districts and the all-volunteer Mountain Fire Company into the Windsor Fire Protection District and changing the name.
The new entity “has created a financially sustainable future for emergency services in those communities at a time when small districts across the county, including RRFPD, face increasingly dire financial futures,” said Weaver in a consolidation message on the Russian River District’s website (russianriverfire.org).
The five Russian River District directors and the district’s firefighters have all expressed support for annexation, said Weaver. “Our firefighting staff is categorically and unanimously in favor of joining Sonoma County Fire District.”
If annexation is approved, the locally elected Russian River Fire Protection District Board of Directors would be dissolved, and the SCFD Board of Directors would be in charge of the entire district’s governance.
SCFD’s seven-member board is made up of elected residents of the district, so any Russian River Fire District resident could be elected or appointed to a vacancy on the SCFD board. But it’s not a requirement to have any river district residents on the SCFD board, said Weaver.
The SCFD’s regular monthly board meetings rotate among the different fire stations within the district so that residents in different areas have relatively equal opportunity to show up at a local meeting to listen and to voice opinions, said Weaver.
“This practice would extend to Guerneville under annexation,” he said.
The Russian River Fire District’s 12 fulltime paid firefighters would become employees of the SCFD but would likely continue working out of the firehouse in Guerneville, said Weaver. Annexation would add new firefighters to the Guerneville staff, and the current river firefighters would all get raises to match pay levels in the SCFD, said Weaver.
Potential benefits of the merger include having three firefighter/paramedics on duty 24-7 in Guerneville instead of one.
“We currently have only one paramedic on our ambulance,” said Weaver. “For approximately eight hours on an average day, RRFD’s ambulance is committed to transporting someone to a Santa Rosa area hospital. During this time there are no paramedics in our fire district to respond to the next medical emergency.”
With annexation, SCFD Fire Chief Mark Heine would continue as chief of all the SCFD’s fire operations. Heine is currently also serving as the Russian River District chief under a contract with the district.
When River Fire District directors meet on Aug. 14, they are expected to approve a request to the Sonoma County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) to approve annexation of the Russian River Fire District into the SCFD.
The SCFD board is also scheduled to approve the annexation this month. The Aug. 14 Russian River District meeting starts at 6 p.m. in the Guerneville firehouse on Armstrong Woods Road.