PART ONE OF A FOUR-PART SERIES: Three west county fire districts have parcel tax measures on the Nov. 5 ballot, including Gold Ridge Fire Protection District (Measure E), Graton Fire Protection District (Measure F) and Occidental Community Services, which runs the Occidental Fire Department (Measure C). Over the next few weeks, Sonoma West will be talking to the chiefs of each of these districts about why their districts are asking voters to approve new parcel taxes. Bodega Bay Fire has a measure on the ballot as well, regarding an "Appropriation Limit Override," which we will cover in next week's issue.
The Gold Ridge Fire Protection District has put a parcel tax measure on the Nov. 5 ballot to improve emergency medical care and fire safety in the district. The district serves about 15,000 residents in the rural areas south and west of Sebastopol, stretching from Mill Station Road in the north to Stony Point in the south.
Proponents of the measure say a new parcel tax is necessary because of the rising number of calls the district receives each year, especially the skyrocketing number of emergency medical calls, due to the region’s aging population.
Measure E’s parcel tax rate structure is as follows:
• $200 per year on residences (plus another $100 for properties with an additional residential structure like a granny unit).
• $300 per parcel for commercial properties, plus up to 14 cents per square foot per year.
• $100 per year for other types of land, including vineyards.
• $50 per parcel per year for pasture land.
Levied on the district’s 5,500 parcels, the Measure E parcel tax would raise approximately $1.2 million for the district, adding roughly 57% to its 2018-19 budget of around $2.1 million.
(Note: Thanks to a two-year county grant to explore consolidation, the district’s 2019-20 budget is already about $850,000 bigger than usual, but Shepley Schroth-Cary, a long-time firefighter and battalion chief with the district and, as of last week, its new fire chief, said the district’s 2018-19 budget of $2.1 million is a more accurate portrait of their usual funding situation.)
Measure E isn’t the district’s first parcel tax. The average residential voter in the district already pays $65 a year in fire district parcel taxes, which brings in roughly $346,000 a year. The Measure E parcel tax would be added on top of this, which means the average residential owner would pay $265 a year.
Parcel tax measures require a two-thirds vote to pass.
Portrait of a district
Gold Ridge has three fire stations: one on Hessel Road south of Sebastopol, one on Watertrough west of Sebastopol and one in Freestone. The Freestone Station is all volunteer.
Gold Ridge currently employs 16 full-time firefighters, split between the Hessel and Watertrough stations, which are staffed seven days per week, 24 hours per day.
Paid firefighters work a 48-hour on-duty, 96-hour off-duty schedule, covered by three rotating shifts. This results in two staff per station ready to respond at all times, complimented by a rotating group of approximately 50 volunteers.
Reasons for the new parcel tax campaign
Fire and emergency calls have been steadily increasing over the years, placing more demand on the district’s limited services. In 2008, when the last parcel tax was approved, the Gold Ridge Fire Protection District got approximately 850 calls per year.
“We get roughly 1,200 calls a year now,” Schroth-Cary said. “It’s going up every year, and the call types are typically medical rather than fire-related, which is true of most fire agencies.”
As a result, at current staffing levels, Schroth-Cary said the district can only afford to field bare bones response teams.
“Currently, we have three stations, which are staffed with a guarantee of two people per fire engine: an engineer and a firefighter. We then supplement that staffing with interns and volunteers, both day and night, with a goal of having three people on the fire engine at all times.”
But it’s harder to get and retain trained volunteers, he said. (See the accompanying article, “The shrinking pool of volunteer firefighters,” for an in-depth analysis of why this is the case.)
In addition, Schroth-Cary said the district’s rising number of medical calls require a different kind of first responder — paramedic firefighters, who have more medical training.
“We hope to hire six paramedic firefighters,” Schroth-Cary said. “That’d be huge increasing level of service to our community. Right now our firefighters are EMTs. The main differences are the ability to use important life-saving measures, like starting IVs, intubation and administering certain medications.”
As it now stands, Schroth-Cary said, “We’re finding there are occasions where we wait a long time for an ambulance. More and more often we’re waiting for that paramedic to arrive.”
In addition to hiring six new paramedic firefighters, Schroth-Cary said the district would also use the funds to step up fire prevention efforts, such as property inspections and community fire education. He also said he’d like to raise the base pay of his firefighters, who start at $15 an hour, to $20 an hour.
Schroth-Cary said that Gold Ridge firefighters have the lowest pay in Sonoma County, which makes it hard to attract and retain firefighters. Like many rural districts, Gold Ridge acts as a training ground for recruits, who often leave soon after for better paying jobs.
The campaign for Measure E
Schroth-Cary said that initial polling indicated that the community was supportive of the fire district, if somewhat unsure about a new parcel tax.
“What we did notice from polling is there’s a lot of people that aren’t educated about what we do, and I believe that left a lot of people uncertain about how they’d vote because they’re not quite aware of what it takes and how important the fire service is. So I think that’s our challenge.”
“We’ve had great community support all these years — people come to the pancake breakfast, they love us. But they’re also not aware of our struggles, and that’s partially our fault,” Schroth-Cary said.
He said pride has kept the district from asking for more help until now.
“We’re so willing to just make things work and make things happen,” he said. “But right now we’re in a position where we’re asking for help. It was a very hard decision for our board to come to. Our board is historically very fiscally conservative. It was hard for them to come to the conclusion that we had to come to the voters and say, ‘Hey, we need your help.’ But that’s where we’re at.”
Come to the Friends of Gold Ridge Fire Chili Cook-off on Saturday, Oct. 5, from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Sebastopol Veterans Memorial Building. There’ll be wine, beer and, of course, chili.