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Bodega Bay Fire District board weighs cutting jobs, services after Measure B defeat

The Bodega Bay Fire Protection District is exploring layoffs and possible cuts to service after west Sonoma County voters rejected a tax measure last week that would have provided revenue to fill its budget shortfall.

In an emergency, closed-door meeting Friday with legal counsel, the district board of directors began considering cost-cutting measures including layoffs and service rollback in areas of the far-flung district that bring in no tax revenue.

The board will meet again Tuesday evening to discuss, among other items, declaring a fiscal emergency to allow it the needed flexibility to deal with its budget crisis.

“The failure of Measure B has raised serious questions as to whether BBFPD will survive in a manner that will allow it to provide its life saving services to those who live at or visit the beautiful but dangerous Sonoma County coast,” the district’s board of directors said in a joint statement released Saturday.

It’s not clear how many of the district’s 12 full-time positions the board may seek to eliminate through layoffs, since some employees have already begun heading out the door, said Steve Herzberg, assistant fire chief for Bodega Bay.

“Although we are working on a ‘layoff plan,’ the truth is that people may well leave before we lay them off,” Herzberg said. “And we won’t be able to replace them because no one will come to a job without a future.”

Measure B proposed a 4-percentage-point hike on the existing tax on hotel stays, to raise about $2.7 million year for fire services and struggling schools in west county.

It failed to pick up the two-thirds majority needed to pass in the March 2 special election, and its defeat already has prompted the imminent exit of at least two paramedics, Herzberg said, with another likely to leave in the near future.

The departures leave the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District with 10 or fewer full-time positions filled. The staff includes firefighters and captains certified as EMTs and paramedics. A corps of volunteers, some of whom also have EMT certifications, supplement services.

The district’s inability to provide competitive salaries and stability, officials said, has contributed to the almost year exodus of paramedics — 11 have left in the past eight years, the board said.

Other agencies in Sonoma County offer higher wages and more job security, Herzberg said, and paramedics are in high demand amid a national shortage.

In light of Measure B’s failure, the board said, the district is “bleeding out.”

“Our lifeblood, our employees, are leaving us,” the statement said. “Without immediate help from the County, we will fail.”

In the past, the Bodega Bay district has survived employee departures by paying overtime to remaining staff who fill the gaps. A 2020 financial audit found that the cost to replace a lost paramedic was around $250,000.

But in the face of a $900,000 structural deficit, the board also is looking at cutting services until or unless new revenue can be identified. It operates on a $2.7 million budget.

The Bodega Bay department draws taxes from a 27-square-mile district but serves a 211-square-mile area that includes nontaxable land in state and regional parks. It also has mutual-aid agreements beyond its ambulance zone, stretching from Sea Ranch to Santa Rosa and even covers a section of Marin County by contract.

Bodega Bay residents pay the highest parcel taxes in California to fund their fire department and its ambulance services, according to local officials: $524 annually. Voters had approved a hike in 2003 and have supported votes to affirm district spending and parcel tax extensions up through 2019, but in 2014 they rejected a proposal to bump the parcel tax even higher, by about $200 per home.

An audit of the district’s calls for service found that 80% are made by nonresidents and tourists. About 4 to 6 million tourists visit the Sonoma Coast each year.

“For years, it has been clear that the parcel taxpayers of Bodega Bay, a small village, could not continue to carry the entire financial burden placed on the District by the demands of those who do not contribute to the cost of readiness for the services they receive,” the board statement read.

Consolidation with the Sonoma County Fire District is seen as the most effective long-term solutions to the smaller agency’s budget woes. Other entities, including the Russian River and Forestville fire districts, have sought a similar resolution since the district’s creation in 2019.

But consolidation costs are hefty. A 2019 audit estimated that consolidating Bodega Bay with Sonoma County Fire District would take a $2.5 million one-time outlay, to make up for lost revenue when Bodega Bay’s parcel taxes fall to the rate of the rest of the Sonoma County Fire District.

Chief Mark Heine of the Sonoma County Fire District has called consolidation “critical” to Bodega Bay’s survival, and said that any cutbacks the smaller district makes to its services will affect neighboring fire departments.

“It becomes a domino effect,” he said. “If they’re unable to staff an ambulance, that means my ambulance in Guerneville not only has to handle its normal load, but has to handle that area, as well.”

With the path to consolidation unclear, and the deficit threatening ambulance services as soon as the next few months, Herzberg and Heine have already received offers of support, both from Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who championed Measure B, and from its strongest opponents.

Hopkins said she’s asked the county administrator’s office to look “at the lifelines we had thrown to Bodega Bay and other fire districts in the past to see if it would be possible to go back and find another.”

Crista Luedtke and Joe Bartolomei, who co-chaired the Save Sonoma Jobs campaign that sought to defeat the tourism tax hike, met with both Hopkins and the two fire officials recently to discuss forming a coalition aimed at finding solutions to Bodega Bay’s budget deficit.

The group had opposed the tax based on concerns about its potential to deter travelers from visiting the region.

“We’re beginning the process of figuring this out and we don’t have the answer today,” Luedtke said. But, “I think we all feel good about coming together as one huge group and trying to find the right answers.”

“We need to come at this both looking at how do we stop the bleeding and make sure they’re not laying off staff,” Hopkins said. “And then again try for another long-range strategy, which we’ve been trying to do for four years.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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