Various elected officials and area firefighting administrators have been trying for several decades to better coordinate and add more efficiencies to all of Sonoma County’s firefighting services, personnel and tax structure. It has been a history of turf battles, bookshelf studies (you know, when a study is commissioned and then immediately left on the shelf unutilized) and even a recall election or two.
The latest effort is Measure G, appearing on the March 3 election ballot, which asks voters to approve a new half-cent sales tax to raise $51 million annually to hire 200 new firefighters and fund improved disaster alerts, expanded vegetation control and equipment and facility improvements at the county’s 38 fire agencies.
Measure G’s language requires the county board of supervisors to appoint a citizen’s oversight committee, produce an annual expenditure report and pay out incentives to local fire agencies that agree to future consolidation of services.
Sounds like a plan, as they say. Following the recent years of wildfires, we’d expect to see overwhelming support for more fire safety and protection. But, then again, this is a tax, and it must be approved by two-thirds of all voters. Also, next to Measure G on the March 3 ballot will be another county sales tax measure, Measure I, which will ask voters to approve a 30-year extension of a quarter-cent sales tax to support the Sonoma Marin Area Rapid Transit (the SMART train).
It doesn’t take any sharp election analysis to predict that voters will be more likely to support fire services over the financially troubled SMART train that has only 2,300 daily riders. However, there are some questions about Measure G. Concerns have been expressed over too much county control over local fire agencies and volunteer districts. In past sales tax elections, even minor opposition has kept measures from reaching the tough two-thirds vote requirement.
Also, there might be voter resistance in several fire districts where voters have recently approved or increased local parcel taxes, including Graton, Gold Ridge and Occidental. Geyserville will be considering a new parcel tax in a special June election.
Another potential point of contention is that the Measure G tax has no sunset clause, like most local sales and parcel taxes.
In a three-tiered disbursement formula, all local fire agencies and cities would be paid varying annual amounts to supplement whatever other funding they already have. For example, under the categories of Alert Warnings and Sirens; Vegetation Management and Wildfire Prevention and Preparedness and Response, which will receive 80% of the overall agency funding, the dollar amounts include Cloverdale ($628,830), Geyserville (~$1.9 million), Healdsburg ($587,520), Sebastopol ($835,380), Bodega (~$1.4 million), Bodega Bay ($559,980), Forestville ($918,000), Gold Ridge (~$1.2 million), Graton (~$1.24 million), Monte Rio (~$2.5 million), Occidental (~$1.3 million) and the Sonoma County Fire District, which serves Windsor and Rincon Valley, among others (~$2 million).
Other items on the allocation list include Recruitment and Retention of Firefighters and Equipment and Facilities.
Sonoma County is a big place with 1 million acres and 1,383 miles of rural roads. Much of the more rural parts of the county must rely on volunteer firefighting crews. These volunteers are also the first responders to most medical emergencies, too. Measure G would fund uniform coverage with new paid firefighters to augment to the volunteers or other paid staff at city and taxpayer districts.
The residents of Geyserville, Healdsburg and Windsor know what a difference having adequate firefighting forces can mean. Hundreds of attack squads were flanked on the eastern edge of these north county communities last October and kept the Kincade Fire from expanding into neighborhoods and the towns. It’s hard to argue against paying for this kind of extra protection.
At the same time, we all want better assurances from our elected officials in being more efficient and frugal with our tax money. The inclusion of a new citizen’s oversight committee for Measure G is absolutely essential. Who gets appointed to this panel will be key.
Voters should educate themselves on the full text and funding formulas with Measure G. Even though fire safety is very important, we should understand exactly what we’re paying for.
CORRECTION: Measure I is a quarter-cent sales tax for 30 additional years, not a half-cent sales tax for 20 additional years.