s
s
Sections
Sections
Subscribe

Nobody appears to disagree that the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District is facing a financial abyss, but next week the area's 900 voters will be asked to decide who is best suited to figure out what to do about it.

A slate of three candidates, backed by the firefighters themselves, is challenging three longtime members of the district board on the Nov. 5 ballot, accusing them of being slow to recognize the looming crisis and lacking creativity in their response.

"They are not a group that does long-range planning," said Constance Clover, a retired attorney who has joined Charlie Bone, a retired deputy sheriff, and Dave Kruppa, a retired steel industry executive, in challenging the incumbents.

But the veteran board members insist they have done everything they could to solve the problem. They accuse the challengers of being tools of the firefighters' union, which is unhappy that the budget shortfall has kept wages tight and staffing at a minimum.

The challenge "really came out of the blue to us; we had not heard anything about this kind of thing happening" before signs started appearing around town listing the challengers, said board chairwoman Maggie Briare, who has been on the board for 18 years.

Briare, Barbara McElhiney, a member since 1992, and Tony Anello, a member since 2001, are all seeking new four-year terms on the five-member board.

"Frankly, I think we've done a good job over the years and we deserve a chance to continue what we started in getting alternative funding and getting the fire district back in the black," Briare said.

The outlines of the problem are not in dispute. The district is large, covering a wide swath of the southern coastal corner of Sonoma County, but it is also thinly populated. Since it was formed after the passage of the property tax-limiting measure known as Proposition 13, the district gets less than 15 percent of its $1.6 million annual budget from property taxes.

Most of the rest comes from a special tax, $524 per house annually, the highest fire fee of any district in the county, said Chief Sean Grinnell, who is not taking a position in the election but is frank about the district's dire financial situation.

The district is $300,000 short of what it needs annually to meet even the most minimal staffing — three firefighters and paramedics on duty at a time.

At that money-losing pace, the district will run out of cash at the end of June 2015, he said. Unless something changes, he expects to lay off three of his nine staff members. It would reduce the station to just two persons on duty at a time, barely enough to operate the equipment, let alone fight a major fire or deal with a serious medical emergency or disaster without substantial help from the other fire companies scattered across the rugged west county.

Even as it is, Grinnell and other firefighters admit they are often limited to simply containing fires until help can arrive rather then putting them out.

Capt. David Bynum, who is supporting the slate of challengers, said his three-man crew had to wait 12 minutes for assistance from nearby companies in battling an Oct. 24 blaze on a boat in the Spud Point Marina. They were unable to save the boat, which sank after the fire was extinguished.

Nor is there much disagreement among candidates about what to do next: Both sides are backing a special tax measure raising the fee to $724 per house annually, among the highest fees in the state. That will be on a special election ballot in April.

Beyond that, however, nobody seems to have a clear idea of what to do. Even if voters approve the tax hike, it will only delay the day when the district runs out of money by about four years.

The current board members have pinned much of their hopes on getting county officials to help subsidize the district. They point out that about 80 percent of the calls handled by firefighters and paramedics involve people who are not from the district: Motorists passing through, tourists staying in area hotels, or visitors to the beaches and parks.

The board has pushed vigorously to get a portion of the Transient Occupancy Tax, the levy hotel and inn guests pay for every night they stay.

That effort was unsuccessful until 2011, when Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who represents the area, was successful in pushing a series of grants amounting to nearly $200,000 over three years. Those grants, however, were intended for equipment and training and there is no sign the county is willing to provide ongoing support for salaries and other routine operations.

"Bodega Bay Fire Protection District is not alone," Carrillo said in an email. "Districts all over the county are experiencing financial strain."

He said the supervisors are supportive of efforts to improve the financial position of all fire districts, suggesting that could take the form of consolidation, restructuring and local tax hikes.

The challengers in Bodega Bay admit they don't have a precise idea of how to fix things, but they insist they are more willing than the incumbents to listen to new ideas and solicit the help of the community.

Kruppa said the board might need to consider some kind of "joint powers agreement" with nearby districts to share staff or resources. The district had such an arrangement with the Russian River Fire Protection District, sharing a chief until 2010, but the boards of the districts couldn't reach terms to renew the contract so the system fell apart.

Kruppa blamed that failure on "ego-driven pettiness" on the part of the current board members and said new blood on the panel would make such cooperation possible again.

Briare and the other incumbents reject such talk, saying they have been open to cooperation with other districts and eager to listen to ideas from the public on other ways to proceed.

She said the current board members understand the district in great detail and are best suited to fix it.

"All of us, all three of us incumbents, have been very, very involved in the evolution of the district," she said.