For a fire department, there's no more basic duty than ensuring public safety. That makes it difficult to oppose Measure A, the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District's parcel tax measure on a special April 8 ballot.
The Sonoma Coast fire department's resources don't match its responsibilities. It has tapped into budget reserves, and without a tax increase, district officials warn that layoffs are on the horizon.
"The idea of picking up the phone and saying, 'Send help' — the prospect of that help being right there is going to be questionable," fire district board member Charlie Bone told Staff Writer Mary Callahan.
A cash injection might get the district through its immediate crisis, but there's no guarantee beyond that. And it won't begin to address the fundamental challenges facing Bodega Bay and other rural fire departments in Sonoma County.
The ranks of volunteers have been shrinking for years, with a half-dozen county districts unable to meet a 15-minute emergency response time standard in 2012. But converting to full-time firefighters is prohibitively expensive, and families struggling to recover from a deep recession are wary — and weary — of pleas for more taxes.
It's time for a new fire protection model.
Indeed, some of Sonoma County's 34 volunteer fire companies and independent fire districts already are merging or consolidating management operations. Meanwhile, county supervisors say they want to look at how fire services are delivered.
Unfortunately, nothing will be determined before Bodega Bay voters cast their ballots on Measure A.
Supporters say approving the $200-a-year tax increase would buy time for the district to pursue additional funding from state and county sources.
That would be a stronger argument if Measure A was temporary, but it's a permanent tax increase. Moreover, it's unlikely that the current board members will be any more successful than their predecessors in securing any large infusion of outside money.
Bodega Bay homeowners already pay $524 a year for the fire district, one of the steepest fire taxes in the county. In addition to providing fire protection in and around the town of Bodega Bay, the district operates an advanced life-support ambulance with service from Dillon Beach to the Russian River. Firefighters respond to about 500 emergency calls a year.
Bodega Bay faces several unique challenges:
; A large portion of its calls originate outside the district.
; Census reports track a declining population within the district, presumably accompanied by a shrinking tax base.
; Because the district was formed after Proposition 13, it gets less than 15 percent of the regular property taxes collected within its boundaries.
But a declining number of volunteers and related problems with rural fire and emergency medical service have been obvious for years. So have the potential solutions — consolidation, a countywide agency, contracting with Cal Fire.
Bodega Bay's fire district is in trouble. If it returns with a temporary tax to buy time for a long-term solution, we're likely to support it. For now, however, The Press Democrat recommends a no vote on Measure A.