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.