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An influential advisory committee backed a proposal Wednesday to streamline Sonoma County’s tangled mix of 40-plus fire agencies and request about $9.5 million in annual funding, ending a 14-month study that explored ways to reshape the county’s complex fire services network.

About three dozen fire officials from throughout the county hammered out the final decisions at an almost four-hour meeting that touched on the most sensitive issue — the identity of local fire agencies.

There was no contention over the decision to seek the money, as local fire officials believe the county has underfunded services for years and needs to step up its efforts. But the decision on whether to create a new regional structure with a goal of consolidating some local fire services divided those who wanted to maintain their autonomy and those who said change must come.

The two issues will go to the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 8.

“We made a step forward,” said Dan George, chief of Gold Ridge and Bennett Valley fire districts. “I never thought we would get to this point,” he added, noting the size of the advisory committee and the many opinions over the future of local fire agencies.

“There are so many little kingdoms, and people have that identity concern. They don’t want to lose anything,” Max Ming, fire chief for Russian River and Forestville, said after the meeting. “It’s been our biggest hurdle.”

What sold some holdouts on the regional plan was that it doesn’t force anyone to participate. It included a loose set of proposals that call for fire agencies within seven geographic regions in Sonoma County to figure out how to better streamline fire services in their areas, including consolidation, sharing volunteers, equipment, chief officers and administration. While any agency has that ability now, the plan would create a new countywide advisory committee, which officials thought would help spur action.

The committee would include a representative from each region as well as appointees from the county Board of Supervisors. It could help lobby for county money, some of which would be used as financial incentives for agencies to work more with their neighbors, fire officials said.

Sonoma Valley fire Chief Mark Freeman has pushed for the regional idea from the start, saying it’s time to reduce the number of fire agencies in the county and increase service efficiencies. Chiefs favoring the plan have said the fastest way to get fewer departments was to encourage agencies already working in the same corners of the county to make more of an effort.

“I’ve spent 14 months of my time invested in this. I hope we can be a catalyst for change,” Freeman said Wednesday prior to the vote. “The message to the community is we’re looking at something other than the status quo.”

Ming said he’d been concerned about the lack of details on the regional plan but that Freeman’s comments helped sell it. “To come out with a status quo plan and say ‘give us more money,’ that’s a tough one to choke down for the whole world to see.”

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors launched the study in 2014, wanting advice on how to reshape the county’s complex rural firefighting network. Fire protection and emergency response services aren’t expected to change much in the rural areas — someone always responds to 911 calls.

But decisions at the county level could alter the shape of those services and the ultimate cost to the taxpayers.

Supervisors started the study under increasing pressure to get involved as numerous changes were emerging throughout the county, including proposed annexations and consolidations of fire agencies. There is also a risk of service levels eroding in some rural pockets, where several of the county’s volunteer fire agencies are teetering on operational disaster due to dwindling volunteers and money and more expensive equipment and training needs.

The county’s study included an advisory group, initially numbering 80 members, that settled down to about 40 to 50 over the months.

On Wednesday, the committee rejected a proposal to maintain the status quo and shot down an alternative that would have formed a single, countywide fire department, although some chiefs said they thought that should be the vision for the future. A third proposal that would have outsourced a larger share of fire services to Cal Fire also didn’t garner strong support.

However, there was unanimous support for a proposal to seek more money from the county to fund fire services. The county, which oversees about a dozen volunteer fire companies, doesn’t use general funds to pay for fire services.

Last month, Supervisor Efren Carrillo told a large group of district fire officials that local fire services were “woefully underfunded” and that he supported some kind of increase. Other supervisors also have made similar public statements.

The supervisors already have earmarked almost $1 million this year for fire services — a serious departure from prior years when they routinely denied requests for general funds, resulting in numerous agencies barely surviving on pancake breakfast and barbecue fundraisers.

Fire officials, however, are seeking far more money than the county has set aside for fire services.

The advisory committee initially estimated that rural fire agencies needed $11 million annually in additional funding to provide adequate fire services at a time of rising costs. The figure came down to about $9.5 million on Wednesday, with the caveat that officials expected that could change from year to year. The request will include about $840,000 to cover dispatching costs as well as millions to recover taxpayer funds that have been shifted to other uses, including education. Assuming it is unlikely they will get it all, the advisory committee will try to get money that benefits the highest number of agencies, which includes relief on dispatch costs and money lost to tax shifts as well as help with paying increased stipends to recruit and retain volunteers.

But the fire chiefs aren’t alone in approaching the county for more money. Several groups are pressing for an increased piece of the county’s post-recession budget rebound. On Tuesday, supervisors approved about $13 million for road improvements to come from the annual hotel-motel tax.

“They just spent everything they could find on roads,” Assistant County Administrator Chris Thomas warned the group Wednesday. “That doesn’t mean they can’t find more.”

Thomas, a veteran public administrator, has led the study and the monthly meetings that typically put 35 or so fire chiefs and officials around a huge table. While Thomas has kept complicated topics on track, the monthly advisory meetings have at times been a challenge with so many players and opinions.

That included Wednesday as the regional plan seemed on a path toward approval with several chiefs speaking in its favor.

But the discussion began to derail when Mayacamas volunteer Chief Will Horne, representing 11 of the county’s 14 volunteer companies, said those chiefs all recently opposed a regional plan.

“We don’t care to go with it at this time,” Horne said.

Horne, who is president of the Sonoma County Volunteer Fire Chiefs Association, said the volunteer companies preferred to keep things as they are while they pursue ways to strengthen their countywide standing, perhaps by forming their own, possibly independent, fire district.

But further discussion guided by Thomas brought out the real sticking point.

“They don’t want to lose their identities,” Horne said of the volunteer companies. “They don’t want to be known as ‘region such and such.’”

Also speaking against the plan was Bill Newman, president of Bodega volunteer fire’s board of directors. “We’re successful. We’re looking to enhance ourselves,” Newman said. “People get afraid of change.”

Assistant Graton Fire Chief Bill Bullard said “We feel exactly the same way. We want to keep our identity and not lose who we are in the process.”

But Bullard echoed other chiefs who said there were ways for an agency to retain its identity while still participating in a larger effort — from patches on sleeves to names on the side of engines and across the front of fire stations.

In an effort to seek full consensus before the December board meeting, Thomas organized an upcoming meeting with the companies to better explain the plan.

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

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