Fire redistricting gets mixed reception
The fire districting issue marches on.
Sonoma County Board of Supervisors voted 3-1 to pass three agenda items and table the rest during the Fire Services Project and Annexation Property Tax Exchange Agreements section of its Jan. 29 meeting.
The county consolidation plan is called the Silver Plan, which is an increase to staffing and quality of apparatus for all districts. The discussed agenda items were meant to move the county towards implementing the Silver Plan.
The county will move ahead with a plan to put a half-cent sales tax on the ballot as early as November. A staff report will determine when the best time to propose the tax will ultimately be. The tax would be countywide and in addition to existing fire service taxation. It will be an effort to cover the expected $42 million cost of the items both tabled and approved.
Jim Colangelo, the interim director of Sonoma County’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services, presented findings and recommended action to the board.
“Sustainable is not going to happen today,” Colangelo said, adding that in order to get on a sustainable path, his report showed that the proposed sales tax increase was the only permanent option that was feasible.
The board will also move ahead with consolidation efforts that have an endgame of one fire district for the county. The rate of that consolidation and its feasibility are still questioned.
Some consolidation efforts did get through. Windsor Fire Protection District is annexing three other districts – Rincon Valley, Bennett Valley and Mountain. The new district was being called Sonoma County Fire Protection District at the meeting.
Windsor and Rincon Valley Fire Chief Mark Heine spoke during the meeting in approval of the package.
“We need to be working toward the Silver Plan,” he said, noting that there are challenges the new district faces both in urban and rural areas.
Windsor, being the annexing district, will receive fire services tax money from the three areas. It will also receive an adjustable annual amount, initially set at $1.59 million with adjustments made on assessed value of property within the old districts. Windsor will also receive a one-time payment of $500,000.
The Town of Windsor is also in talks with the district, Heine said, to determine what the town should pay for the services it receives. Each municipality paying into regionalization efforts is important, Heine noted, and should be part of how the county as a whole looks at funding.
As staff and the leadership group recommended, a measure to begin an apparatus (fire vehicle) replacement plan was set aside until general budget talks begin in March. The board also tabled staffing efforts for Bodega Bay, Cloverdale and Geyserville until budget meetings start.
The remaining tabled agenda items were more contentious. Two intertwined contracts with the county were proposed to handle 11 volunteer fire companies (VFCs) consolidated as County Service Area 40 (CSA 40). The first contract was for North Bay Area Fire to provide administrative support in the amount of $2 million per year. The second was with Gold Ridge Fire Protection District, which would provide supervision and management under a $2.6 million annual contract.
These two contracts were provided by the leadership group that consisted of several fire district heads, but absent from the leadership group roster were the Cloverdale and Geyserville districts, which border much of the rural area in CSA 40. North county did have representation in the leadership group through Gold Ridge and Healdsburg.
Representatives from the Geyserville board noted a lack of transparency in the process, and said they could not support a sales tax increase to their constituents if the district wasn’t kept in discussions.
Fourth District Supervisor James Gore was also incensed at the lack of time he had to examine the proposed contracts, combined with pressure to pass the contracts and other items that day, as a package.
“I had since last Tuesday, so a week, to look at this,” he said. “Now you’re telling me that if I don’t do this on Jan. 29 that all hell’s going to break loose and no one’s going to trust you anymore.”
Without proper vetting of the details of the plan, he said that the ballot initiative – already a large hurdle – would certainly fail as past tax increases on the ballot have.
“Special taxes are a great place for dreams to die,” he said.
Union representatives also were reluctant to readily accept the two-contract idea. Though there was support for the items that passed, other alternatives were available, they said. The agreements with North Bay Fire and Gold Ridge would also leave Bodega Bay and Zone Six, which includes Cloverdale and Geyserville, “out in the cold.”
Chairman and Second District Supervisor David Rabbitt was a strong supporter of passing the deal as a package. As a result of splitting the items after discussion, he became the dissenting vote. Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hpkins was absent.
Rabbitt, who was on the ad hoc committee to develop the Silver Plan, said he didn’t want to see another path to consolidation sitting on a shelf. He also said that the contracts delayed were “rewarding those” who had responded to a request for proposal to take VFCs under their wing. That rewarding going to Gold Ridge Fire, which was the only district willing to take on all former 11 VFCs in CSA 40, as well as Windsor for its annexation.
A primary detail needed, Gore said, was the initial results of Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) studies. LAFCO is a state agency that oversees proposals of new districts and has a county branch in Santa Rosa. The Windsor annexation agreement did have a LAFCO preliminary report, which Gore cited as a reason for his support of the item.
Another issue in CSA 40 comes from the redistribution of funds in north county to cities in the center and south. Though the idea of centralizing funds and redistribution was seen as poor reasoning for concern by Rabbitt, representatives from Geyserville Fire Protection District have disagreed.
Rabbitt argued that a county cannot ask for tax dollars to stay in their collected areas, because the county would suffer as a whole in that approach. Though Gore talked to the point briefly, saying that CSA 40 would ship 60 percent of the tax money to the center, the issue was largely left alone afterward.
Geyserville Fire Chief Marshall Turbeville said he understands the “socialism component” of redistributing funds and county governance, but said that properly addressing dangers to the county still lies in the north.
The decision to postpone the contracts for the 11 VFCs “signals more time is needed,” Turbeville said, adding it wasn’t a negative result.
His concerns with money leaving through CSA 40 to more densely populated areas were due to lack of fire prevention work and lack of proper wildfire preparation. He said the move to consolidate CSA 40 under North Bay Fire and Gold Ridge was not a long-term solution, as the geography would not allow Gold Ridge to provide direct enough supervision to the outlying areas. During the meeting, the board echoed the statement that consolidation under Gold Ridge was a temporary fix.
Geyserville has been in consolidation talks of its own. The district is working to annex Knight’s Valley and has also tried to annex the Geysers in the northeast corner of the county, which is one of the areas in CSA 40. That was where talks stalled, he said, as the county doesn’t want to give up the tax money. The area including the Geysers is a high-value stretch of land due to the power plants capping the geysers, and it is estimated that three-quarters of a million dollars is generated annually from property taxes in the rural area.