The Bodega Bay Fire Protection District (BBFPD) risks going under as the layoff process begins in the aftermath of Measure B’s apparent failure, according to a March 6 statement issued by the district’s board of directors.
While the board took no formal action at its March 5 special meeting — largely spent in closed session with legal counsel — the statement said the board instructed its Employee Relations committee to enter legal procedures to lay off staff.
The board also requested its counsel to work on a declaration of Fiscal Emergency for approval at the following regular board meeting and to explore reducing services to areas “that do not contribute to the costs of providing those services,” per the March 6 statement.
BBFPD Board of Directors names the county as responsible for deserting the district
"For more than a year, the board of directors has made clear to all who would listen that without outside aid to bring about the consolidation, the agency might fail. Those warnings were loud and clear,” the statement said. “There was no response. The agency is in critical condition and facing the crisis both it, and the county’s financial analysis, had predicted.”
The board’s announcement linked to a PDF document that included a letter from audit manager Kanchan K. Charan to Sonoma County Administrator Sheryl Bratton, dated July 17, 2020. Charan’s letter attached a preliminary financial analysis dated for July 10, 2020 that found the district to be operating at a structural deficit with primarily fixed revenues and expenditures.
BBFPD Fire Chief Sean Grinnell said in a March 8 interview with Sonoma West Times & News that BBFPD had budgeted for a deficit of about $437,000 as of the beginning of 2021, but because the number changes monthly as actual numbers factor into the formula, $344,000 is the most recent estimate.
“On an ongoing basis, we estimate the district will need $900,000 per year from the county or other outside sources to cover operating costs,” Charan’s letter said.
Yet, the BBFPD board’s statement compared the district to its patients in need of immediate aid. “Talking of a ‘transfusion’ in months or a year, will not stem the flow,” the statement said.
The announcement called out the County of Sonoma for abandoning the district in its urgent need to consolidate with the Sonoma County Fire District (SCFD) to steady the district straining to support a region much larger than its tax district.
“That support never came,” the statement said. “Without consolidation, the district will fail.”
Although the Sonoma County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) approved BBFPD’s annexation to SCFD on March 4, 2020, as stated in a LAFCO notice from that year, the board maintained in its recent statement that the coastal district cannot consolidate without county funding since Bodega Bay’s small taxpayer base cannot sustain the district’s costs.
Grinnell said SCFD would have the most accurate information on the cost of consolidation, as well as what changes Bodega Bay taxpayers could see on their bills. SCFD Fire Chief Mark Heine was not available to respond the afternoon of March 8, but Grinnell said, “I think it’s more just shy of $3 million.”
According to Measure B's full text, Bodega Bay taxpayers currently kick in about $524 annually in parcel taxes. Ballotpedia reported residents shot down a 2014 measure to add a district parcel tax up to $50 per unit, altogether a projected yearly $200 increase for single-family homes.
The PDF document that the statement provided a link for also included a letter from Assistant Fire Chief Steve Herzberg to Charan, the audit manager, and Melissa Osso of the Auditor-Controller-Treasurer-Tax Collector’s Office, dated Aug. 2, 2020.
According to Herzberg’s letter, BBFPD serves a region 8.5 times the size of its 27-square-mile tax district. The letter said Sonoma County GIS data demonstrates a 27-mile district responding to 211 square miles as its primary service area.
The BBFPD Board of Directors said that the county supervisors intended for Measure B to ease the merger and its apparent defeat “has raised serious questions as to whether BBFPD will survive in a manner that will allow it to provide its life-saving services to those who live at or visit the beautiful but dangerous Sonoma County coast.”
A long history of losing paramedics
At the March 5 special board meeting, Herzberg said Measure B’s evident but unconfirmed loss was a dealbreaker for at least one paramedic who informed Herzberg he was resigning and doubted the county’s interest in sustaining BBFPD, a week after he helped save someone’s life.
The March 6 statement said another newly hired employee is seeking employment elsewhere.
The high turnover isn’t new. The beleaguered district’s fire and emergency medical services paramedics are the lowest paid in the county for organizations serving Advanced Life Support, with 11 paramedics leaving in eight years, the statement said.
“Almost all had left because they were young, wanted to raise a family, and wanted jobs where they did not have to worry, year to year, about whether their employer would survive,” the statement said.
“With the failure of Measure B, we are bleeding out. Our lifeblood, our employees are leaving us. Without immediate help from the county, we will fail,” the statement said.
An unexpected alliance in Measure B’s most active opponents
The board’s statement asserted that the county failed to show up for BBFPD and noted members of the tourism industry and Dan Drummond, executive director of the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association reached out to extend support.
Further, the statement shared that Herzberg and SCFD Chief Heine and tourism industry figures “found common ground and pledged to build a coalition to work with the board of supervisors to stabilize Bodega Bay and finalize its consolidation with Sonoma County Fire,” in a meeting the morning of March 5.
“They opposed what they perceived to be other flaws in the measure,” the statement said of Measure B’s strongest critics who approached BBFPD in the aftermath, adding, “They told us that had the measure been exclusively for BBFPD, they would not have opposed it.”