Bodega Bay fire board to chart course after tax failure

Three weeks after Bodega Bay residents voted overwhelmingly to reject increased taxes for fire and emergency medical service, members of the fire district board will meet Tuesday to address the tough choices that come next.

Not all the options have been identified, though some may be simple — like inviting willing district residents to pay the tax hike voluntarily, or even renting out ad space on the sides of fire trucks, board members said.

Ongoing discussions also will include more complicated, long-term solutions that would reframe the district mission and change the way service is delivered, they said.

These could include consolidation of agencies, a topic of discussion countywide as small fire entities increasingly struggle to confront financial shortfalls, board members said.

Another proposal would have the district give up its advanced live support ambulance and shift ambulance service over to a private provider.

"There's no one thing. There's no one silver bullet," board member Charlie Bone said.

The initial talk will center on cutting the nine-member staff to offset deficit costs that would have been covered by the estimated $300,000 sought annually from Measure A, the ballot proposal rejected on April 8.

The district expects to go from three people on duty for each of three shifts — a model firefighters and officials say is inadequate in the first place — to just two on duty at any given time, board members said.

Layoffs may not be based solely on seniority, though Fire Chief Sean Grinnell said the firefighters' union would favor that approach.

Some firefighters are also emergency medical technicians; others are paramedics, who are trained and licensed for more complex medical interventions; three of the staff members are captains, and thus offer management experience the district may decide to maintain.

Cutting higher paid workers versus lower paid employees may allow the district to save one position, Grinnell said. Any moves are subject to labor negotiations. Even Grinnell's status as full-time chief could come into play, he said.

"This whole thing is tearing everybody apart," he said. "It's tough all the way around."

District staff and board members are barely over the surprise of an election outcome that most thought would be at least close, if not successful. Measure A would have raised $200 more a year from most homeowners in the 34-square-mile district. Most already pay $524 annually, a rate some say is perhaps the state's highest.

But the measure, which needed approval from two-thirds of the voters to pass, didn't win support from even a simple majority. Instead, 63 percent of the votes cast were "no."

"That was a shock," board member Dave Kruppa said.

Three of the board's five members were elected last fall with a mandate to stabilize the district financially. They had counted on funds from Measure A to see them through the several years it was expected to take to negotiate with outside agencies, board president Constance Clover said.

A key focus has been obtaining more revenue from the county or state park system because visitors to the area's state and county beaches account for much of the assistance rendered.

The agency's ambulance, which covers an area estimated at 220 square miles, also serves many who live outside district boundaries.

Combined, non-district residents were responsible for 57 percent of the 494 calls last year, Grinnell said.

Grinnell said some in county government have proposed the district give up on providing ambulance service and rely instead on a private ambulance company through a shift in jurisdictions.

But that would mean giving up around $300,000 a year in revenue the district is able to recover through insured patients who require hospital transport.

It also would likely extend response times significantly, perhaps beyond what the district's leadership is willing to accept, Clover said.

"There's so much floating around," Clover said, "and we haven't lit on anything yet."

In addition to Tuesday's meeting, the district is hosting a May 7 public workshop to convene various agencies that provide services and draw tax revenue from the area. They include the county, California State Parks and the U.S. Coast Guard.

"Some of you will be asked whether and how you will contribute to the services we render to your constituents for which we are not compensated," Grinnell said in his invitation to the agencies.

Tuesday's special board meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. at the Bodega Bay Fire Station, 510 Highway 1.

The May 7 workshop is scheduled for 6 p.m. at the fire station.