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Latest mergers sought by fire agencies will test Sonoma County’s funding and resolve

Bodega Bay’s financially struggling firefighting agency could have a new name, more firefighters and more paramedics under a plan that would expand the growing Sonoma County Fire District next year - but only if the Board of Supervisors ponies up as much as $2.5 million a year to make it happen.

The 66-year-old coast agency and the 100-year-old Russian River Fire Protection District both want to join Sonoma County Fire, the latest in a series of moves meant to consolidate and modernize the county’s far-flung and somewhat antiquated fire services network.

Sonoma County Fire Chief Mark Heine called the changes important for firefighting but difficult for the agencies making them.

“It’s a very emotional thing for a board, disbanding a fire agency and combining it with another one,” said Heine.

On the east side of the county, another merger involves the nearly 100-year-old Glen Ellen Fire Protection District and the 39-year-old Mayacamas Volunteer Company, both seeking to join Sonoma Valley Fire. That would reduce the valley’s five fire agencies to three and guarantee added firefighters to the region.

The two plans next week are slated to move to a monthslong government review and could be in place by July 1, should they clear hurdles and be deemed beneficial to public service. While the smaller agencies would take on a new name, engines and stations would carry both names to retain part of their heritage.

The changes for Sonoma Valley and Russian River fire are expected to pass. But for Bodega Bay, the Board of Supervisors will need to find a major cash infusion to fill a financial gap that would result from the merger.

That hole is a result partly of the parcel tax savings that would come to residential landowners in Bodega Bay, who would see their annual charge for firefighting drop from $524 to about $180 - to match what is paid by residents throughout the sprawling Sonoma County Fire District, taking in Windsor, Rincon Valley and much of the outskirts of Santa Rosa. That change alone would create a $750,000 budget loss.

Other financial pressure stems from the spike in salaries for Bodega Bay firefighters, to match those in the larger district, and the addition of firefighting and paramedic posts. Added to ambulance, station and equipment costs, and the budget hole is about $2.5 million each year - an amount that’s not available from Bodega Bay or the Sonoma County Fire District, Heine said.

“It’s a big ask of the county at a time when they’re struggling financially as well,” he acknowledged.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents the west county, called the plan a critical consolidation that would enhance service while keeping two fire agencies - Bodega Bay and Russian River - afloat.

She acknowledged the high cost of the Bodega Bay consolidation will be difficult to cover but said an effort to find the money is underway.

“There’s no easy money in local government,” Hopkins said.

This plan is seen as a major test for county supervisors, who have made fire agency consolidations a priority and have pledged funding for progress.

“The county wants consolidation,” said Bodega Bay Fire Chief Sean Grinnell, who supports the change. “It is exactly what the county asked for.”

Voters in March will be asked to approve Measure G, a countywide half-cent sales tax to raise about $51 million annually toward fire safety. The money would be divided among fire agencies; the county’s emergency alert system; and fire prevention programs, which include brush clearing.

The sales tax money wouldn’t be available for the Bodega Bay financial needs, Heine said.

If supervisors can’t find the money, then the Bodega Bay plan will dissolve. The Local Agency Formation Commission, the state agency that approves boundary changes for local government entities, won’t approve it if it’s not financially feasible and beneficial to taxpayers.

For years, Bodega Bay fire officials have faced a fragile financial outlook and have sought out partners. But they’ve largely been rebuffed by neighboring agencies, in part because of the district’s sky-high parcel tax rate - the highest in the county by more than $200 - and budget issues.

Sonoma County Fire was formed last year by combining Rincon Valley, Windsor, Bennett Valley and Mountain fire agencies, encircling Santa Rosa.

Taking on Russian River and Bodega Bay gives the larger district two agencies that run ambulances and spreads the district to the coast, albeit with a hopscotch over Forestville Fire Protection District.

Forestville fire officials for months considered joining the consolidation effort. But in an eleventh-hour about-face, Forestville fire’s board of directors in late November voted against joining up. Forestville Fire Chief Dave Franceschi said that while the board initially liked the idea, members decided the process was moving too fast and they wanted more time.

“I was very disappointed in the Forestville board’s vote,” Heine said. “That vote results in the community of Forestville not receiving an enhanced level of service it could have achieved by having paramedics in that station, at the same or less cost.”

Bodega Bay Fire Protection District has 13 paid full-time firefighters, including the chief, and a contingent of volunteers. They serve 1,200 residents in a 34-square-mile area. Its ambulance covers a 215-square-mile area, providing emergency medical service to numerous neighboring fire districts without charge.

The fire district spends a majority of firefighting and paramedic time serving some of the 4 million Sonoma Coast visitors. The district typically averages about 600 calls annually but is closer to 700 this year, Grinnell said.

The consolidation with Sonoma County Fire is supported by Bodega Bay’s firefighters and the Bodega Bay Fire board of directors, which voted 4-0 Tuesday supporting the annexation.

“My ultimate goal is to provide a better level of service to the community of Bodega Bay. Through this annexation it makes that possible,” said Grinnell.

If the plan goes forward, Grinnell would step down after 19 years as chief, likely to an administration position, including volunteer firefighting supervision, with a comparable salary.

Bodega Bay fire board member Liz Martin praised the plan as having multiple community benefits for residents, tourists and firefighters, including the larger force and better emergency medical and firefighting aid, while substantially lowering the cost to landowners.

For the town’s firefighters - among the lowest paid in the county - the higher salary should ease the high turnover rate as firefighters tend to move elsewhere for money, she said.

Russian River Fire officials endorsed the move in September. For river-area homeowners, the $180 annual cost would at most be slightly more than the current tax, according to Russian River fire officials. Firefighters there could see about an $800 per month salary increase.

In the Sonoma Valley, the plan would guarantee three firefighters on an engine, up from two, and would be paid for by spreading Glen Ellen fire’s $200 annual residential parcel tax to homeowners throughout the Valley of the Moon.

Mayacamas residents currently pay a different $150 tax for fire and that will either remain or change to $200, said Sonoma Valley Fire Chief Steve Akre.

In 2018, Valley of the Moon voters rejected a $200 parcel tax for firefighting by a narrow margin.

Sonoma Valley Fire this spring will get a 3-year, $3.3 million federal grant to hire nine firefighters for the area and three more for the city of Sonoma.

Should the consolidation move forward, the added money from that would be bolstered by two years of the grant money.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707-521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.

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