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Rincon Valley firefighters want Santa Rosa to take over firefighting in their sprawling district, a move they said would best maintain future firefighting services and could be largely supported by the district's current fire fees.

But the proposed shift threatens to derail a plan by Windsor and Rincon Valley fire boards to consolidate their agencies, a move they have been working on for more than two years to reduce expenses and gain efficiencies.

The dueling ideas reflect the shifting landscape of fire services in Sonoma County, with conversations underway at many of the 40-plus agencies on how to maintain solid fire protection amid increasing costs.

Most of those discussions are in more rural areas, where largely volunteer and district departments are studying consolidation as a way to sustain coverage under tight budgets.

In contrast, the crossroads now faced by Rincon Valley and its two potential partners, Windsor and Santa Rosa, take in a much more populated swath of central Sonoma County, home to more than 220,000 people. Any decision could have wide repercussions on both the long-term cost and look of fire services in the area.

"It's a pretty large, all-encompassing policy question which has issues for service levels and funding for sure throughout the city," said Santa Rosa City Manager Kathy Millison.

The contracting request from Rincon Valley to Santa Rosa is up for a vote Tuesday night at the Rincon Valley Fire Protection District's board meeting. If approved, it could go to the Santa Rosa City Council.

Any contract would be paid for primarily with a negotiated amount of Rincon's $4.6 million in district revenues, including annual residential fire protection fees and property taxes.

Under a contract, Rincon Valley firefighters would become Santa Rosa firefighters — giving them a slight boost in pay and benefits, said union leaders.

The Rincon Valley fire district would remain an entity, with limited oversight.

The potential move comes as Rincon Valley and Windsor had been closing in on a decision over whether to move forward as a unified fire department called Central Fire Authority.

Board presidents overseeing each of the entities and their shared chief favor that direction.

But Rincon Valley firefighters say they prefer a partnership with Santa Rosa, as the two agencies have been closely aligned in operations and jurisdiction for many years.

Many of the 30,000 residents within Rincon Valley's fire district receive primary response from Santa Rosa firefighters, noted Rincon Valley fire Capt. Andrew Maclean.

"We're dependent upon Santa Rosa to protect so much of our district," said Maclean, a union leader for Rincon's firefighters. "We need to figure out what the long-term relationship with Santa Rosa is going to be."

Union leaders for Santa Rosa firefighters also support the idea.

"If there ever was a time to ask this question, it's now," said Santa Rosa firefighter Tim Aboudara, president of Santa Rosa Firefighters Local 1401.

Millison, the Santa Rosa city manager, said the City Council would discuss a contract request if it is made by Rincon Valley. But she said it would be a complicated issue for the council to take up.

The city is already considering a potentially costly annexation of Roseland and searching for both a new fire chief and a new city manager to replace Millison, who is retiring in September.

The proposal comes as many fire officials countywide are advocating for increased regional collaboration and mergers. Such cost-saving efforts often begin with the sharing of equipment, training, management and other operations.

Those were the ideas behind Windsor and Rincon Valley fire districts setting up a joint powers agreement in late 2011. Under the new Central Fire Authority, they began sharing management and one fire chief — Doug Williams, a firefighter and chief with Rincon Valley for 42 years.

But while a small handful of jobs at the top have merged, Rincon Valley and Windsor firefighters remain in their home units, though they routinely respond to many of the same calls. Their budgets also have remained separate.

Firefighters from both agencies haven't warmed to the idea of a complete merger, citing basic differences in their operations.

Rincon, for example, runs three firefighters on an engine and Windsor has two. Equipment, staffing size, pay scales and budgets are other complicating factors, say Rincon Valley and Windsor firefighters.

But those issues could be resolved by making the two agencies one, say Rincon fire board President John Hamann, Windsor board President John Nelson and Chief Williams. They have all signaled support for moving ahead with consolidation.

The issue came to a head in January, at a meeting of the three boards of directors — Rincon, Windsor and Central Fire. Officials indicated it was time to decide whether to move ahead, stay the same or revert back to two completely separate agencies.

"I don't think splitting up is viable. There needs to be some type of forward step," Williams said, referring to consolidation.

Hamann, head of the Rincon and Central Fire boards, also said he wanted to move forward with consolidation, even if the board decides to seek Santa Rosa's input. "We're still talking about that and looking at all the hoops we'll have to go through for that."

If Santa Rosa was interested and offered a reasonable cost for the service, Hamann said, "we'd be crazy not to take it."

Windsor board President Nelson said while he supports consolidation, he understands Rincon's interest in looking toward Santa Rosa for that district's future.

"Frankly, until we got involved in this, I didn't realize how closely Rincon Valley and Santa Rosa have been trying to work together," Nelson said.

At a February board meeting, Rincon Valley firefighters countered with the Santa Rosa request. They asked the boards to hold off on consolidation talks until Santa Rosa city officials had a chance to respond.

Tuesday night's board meeting includes two main items: whether Rincon Valley and Windsor boards want to move ahead with studies for potential consolidation and whether Rincon's board wants to send a letter to Santa Rosa seeking the city's interest in contracting for service.

A Santa Rosa-Rincon Valley contract, meanwhile, would leave Windsor firefighters on somewhat uncertain footing.

Like Rincon Valley, discussions about the Windsor fire district's future have from time to time included the idea of asking Santa Rosa to expand to take in its fire district. That idea is not currently on the table for the Windsor board.

Windsor firefighters support Rincon's desire to check with Santa Rosa about a contract for service, said Windsor firefighter Jason Jones, president of the Windsor firefighters' union.

On the other hand, consolidation with Rincon is welcomed if current issues are resolved, Jones said. "We're not opposed to it as long as the numbers can work and we come up to an even playing field," he said. "Currently, our staffing levels are different, our budgets are a little different."

Whether Rincon Valley settles on consolidation or contracting, one thing that will change is the area's firefighting identity. Rincon Valley's 18 paid firefighters would find themselves in Santa Rosa or Central Fire uniforms.

The shift could be jarring for some longtime residents.

"I live in Rincon Valley. I've always been a Rincon Valley proponent, especially of the fire district," Hamann said. He said it would sadden him to lose the Rincon Valley name on fire turnouts and engines.

"But things change," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.