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Rewards, hurdles in northern Sonoma County fire merger


If approved, it would be the largest fire service merger in modern county history. Supporters say the idea is born of a dire need.

Cloverdale and Geyserville districts are struggling with tighter budgets, fewer volunteers and increasing calls for help. Those two agencies and Healdsburg's department all work together so much in their expansive corner of the county that it seems like common sense to join forces, Cloverdale Fire Chief Jason Jenkins said.

"Cloverdale, Geyserville and Healdsburg were looking at opportunities to share resources and provide a stronger volunteer workforce for our community," Jenkins said.

The other entity involved is the Knights Valley Volunteer Fire Department, overseen by Sonoma County's Fire and Emergency Services Department.

The four outfits are working on the idea with Sonoma County officials under the guidance of the county's Local Agency Formation Commission, which oversees expansions of government boundaries. A six-month study commissioned by LAFCO is expected in May. Recommended results would range from doing nothing to a partial merger to all-out consolidation.

While the northern chiefs said they favor several benefits of regionalized firefighting, they also listed numerous hurdles.

"We have very different budgets, staffing levels, pay scales, benefits," said Healdsburg Fire Chief Steve Adams. "If the agencies are to merge, there's a lot of work to be done at the financial level... It's not as easy as it sounds."

Healdsburg Mayor Jim Wood said the city is participating in the study, but the City Council wouldn't want to make changes if they reduce the effectiveness of the city's firefighting force.

"If there are ways we can help other agencies and still continue to provide the highest level of service, we're definitely open to that," Wood said.

Geyserville and Cloverdale fire officials are committed to a merger and could complete it relatively quickly, said Jenkins and Geyserville Chief Marshall Turbeville.

A larger consolidation taking in the entire north county could take at least three years, fire officials said.

Mergers occur periodically, to varying degrees. In 2011, the departments in Windsor and Rincon Valley consolidated their management into the Central Fire Authority; firefighters have remained with their original departments. The effort still is working through growing pains involving budgets and staffing.

In 2012, the city of Ukiah in Mendocino County took steps toward merging three fire departments by hiring a fire chief who already was chief of the Ukiah Valley Fire District and Hopland volunteers.

On the east side of Sonoma County, the city of Sonoma and Valley of the Moon district firefighters in 2002 formed a joint-powers authority that evolved into a complete consolidation under the name of the Sonoma Valley Fire Protection District.

Others have rejected the idea. A 2005 study recommended that Bodega Bay, Monte Rio and Russian River districts merge into a single regional agency, but the district boards never took that step and remain independent entities.

<em><strong>Patchwork of firefighting agencies</strong></em>

The northern departments involved in current merger talks form a microcosm of Sonoma County's mishmash of firefighting agencies.

Cloverdale, covering 68 square miles, and Geyserville, covering 218 square miles, are fire districts. They have a couple of paid firefighters, a handful of volunteer firefighters and part-time paid chiefs.

Healdsburg's department covers four square miles with 12 paid firefighters and a full-time paid chief.

The city also contracts with the county for $125,000 a year to pick up calls in the 64-square-mile rural area known as Sotoyome, as well as Fitch Mountain.

To the northeast lies Knights Valley. Veteran Chief Augie Grube and about eight volunteer firefighters make up the company for the 48-square-mile area between Calistoga and Healdsburg.

In 2012, the volunteers operated on a shoestring budget of $7,850 -#8212; not counting fundraisers. Knights Valley volunteers responded to 57 calls in 2012, according to the county.

The larger, neighboring agencies also respond to Knights Valley calls, often showing up ahead of volunteers.

Even if studies show that joining forces would be best, a merger couldn't work without additional money, fire officials said.

That money could come from as much as $1 million in property tax dollars collected by the county in various unincorporated northern areas, including about $500,000 from The Geysers geothermal fields.

The money is parceled out to Sonoma County's 15 volunteer fire companies, which mainly lie many miles away from the northern areas. The only part of it to stay in the northern zone each year is $7,500 budgeted for Knights Valley, plus training funds and equipment; the $125,000 Sotoyome-Fitch Mountain contract with Healdsburg; and about $10,000 to Geyserville for calls to The Geysers.

That minimal share doesn't sit well with the northern fire chiefs, who will negotiate with the county for a greater stake of the money.

"We are the agencies that protect the north county and have done that for many, many years," said Jenkins. "The money should go to the agencies that provide that service. We have to be strong enough to have the ability to provide that service."

Healdsburg's Chief Adams cited the large, late-season wildfire at The Geysers in November. The response included the northern local fire departments and agencies from around the state. But no one responded from the local volunteer companies that directly benefit from The Geysers money, Adams said.

<em><strong>Questions about sharing resources, oversight identity</strong></em>

To help with the negotiations, the Geyserville and Cloverdale districts have hired former Cloverdale Fire Chief Brian Elliott, a private consultant specializing in fire department issues.

Supervisor Mike McGuire, who represents the north county and supports consolidation, cautioned that the north zone shouldn't get all of the tax money.

"We can't sacrifice one agency for another," McGuire said.

The northern chiefs said they're aware that, if the merger happens, their gain would leave a substantial financial hole for some of their countywide peers. They agreed with McGuire that their volunteer counterparts can't be left in further financial difficulty and suggested the county would need to provide for those agencies in other ways.

"I'm not supportive of Healdsburg benefiting from something if another agency is going to have to reduce services. It all needs to be fair," said Adams.

Geyserville Chief Turbeville suggested the county could consider a different model for the remaining fire companies, "maybe a countywide fire protection district."

Then there is the question of how a consolidated northern district would be governed.

In addition to the four fire chiefs involved, there are currently three boards of directors, the Healdsburg City Council and the county Board of Supervisors making decisions about the area's firefighting budgets and needs.

Other issues are perhaps closer to the hearts of the communities: What would a new fire district be called? And what would happen to the identities of the current agencies?

"Personally I am a little protective of our guys (firefighters). I want to see when our firefighters are in our community, I want to see those patches that say 'Healdsburg Fire Department,'" Mayor Wood said.

Jenkins acknowledged the identity issue is serious.

"We all have strong ties and connections with our communities. It's really important that is not lost," Jenkins said.

He expected that whatever the name of a new district, the fire engines from each community still would keep their local names.

"The community will feel a sense of pride in their fire department as they always have," said Jenkins.

(You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.)