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Sonoma County authorizes $9 million to advance fire agency consolidations, affecting Bodega Bay, 9 volunteer companies

Breakdown of consolidation and funding agreements:

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved $9 million to cover consolidation efforts that are expected to streamline the local fire agency network

Consolidations include community service areas (CSA) — regions without dedicated fire coverage.

Here are the moves advanced Tuesday and how much funding is involved:

Gold Ridge Fire Protection District and seven volunteer fire companies: Ft. Ross, Camp Meeker, Bodega, Valley Ford, Two Rock, Wilmar and Lakeville. Plus the Wilmar Community Family District and a CSA. Annual funding is $4.4 million plus revenue from the Wilmar CFD, at $131,946 per year.

Sonoma County Fire District and Bodega Bay Fire Protection District: There should be improved response where limited property tax revenue prevents sufficient emergency services. Annual funding will be $3 million, plus $28,000 from with the annexation of three CSAs.

Northern Sonoma County Fire District, the Dry Creek-Sotoyome Community Facility District territories and three CSAs: Annual funding is $1.2 million, plus revenue from the CFD, at $112,849 per year.

Kenwood Fire Protection District will receive $180,000 annually and additional annual payments of $120,000. Money will help stabilize the fire agency until it can partner with another fire department.

Sonoma County’s fire district consolidation efforts reached a milestone Tuesday when the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a series of tax exchange and revenue sharing agreements and committed $9 million to support streamlined fire services across a wide swath of the unincorporated area.

The board’s vote advanced mergers affecting three general areas: along the coast from Bodega Bay to Fort Ross; further inland along a corridor stretching from Lakeville in the south to Camp Meeker west of Guerneville; and on the county’s northern end near The Geysers and Dry Creek Valley.

The series of moves will further reduce the number of districts covering Sonoma County and its cities to 23, down from the 43 operating in 2014 when the county began pursuing consolidation.

“That’s significant,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt. “I‘m so happy that we’re able to bring it over the finish line today.”

The board’s action Tuesday is one of the most significant in its now eight-year effort to overhaul a highly decentralized fire agency network that dated back a century or more, to a time when the county was mostly rural and largely covered by volunteer companies and independent districts.

Outside of cities, many have struggled to meet rising equipment and labor costs, tougher training standards and, increasingly, the demands of a more volatile, year-round wildfire season that has repeatedly battered Sonoma County with catastrophic blazes in the past five years.

Tuesday’s approval by the Board of Supervisors includes these consolidation efforts: Sonoma County Fire District taking in Bodega Bay Fire Protection District; North Sonoma County Fire Protection District taking over The Geysers and Dry Creek/Sotoyome areas; and Gold Ridge Fire Protection District annexing volunteer fire companies in Fort Ross, Camp Meeker, Bloomfield, Bodega, Valley Ford, Two Rock, San Antonio, Wilmar and Lakeville.

“It has been thousands of hours of work and a true labor of love,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who along with Rabbitt and Supervisor James Gore represent districts with a large number of the affected agencies. “It’s not a legal responsibility but it is a moral responsibility.”

Each consolidation is in a different stage and will ultimately require approval from the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission, which governs boundaries for tax-supported public entities.

Gold Ridge’s planned expansion takes in most of the remaining volunteer companies in the county. In 2014, there were 15.

Bodega Bay’s financially troubled fire agency tried to secure LAFCO approval about 2.5 years ago but the effort was delayed due to a funding shortage. The effort will restart now that the Board of Supervisors approved seed funding. Consolidation could be finalized by July 1 if all goes according to plan.

“That means we’ll be all finished with the formal process and Bodega Bay will be another station in Sonoma County Fire District,” said Bodega Bay Fire Protection District Assistant Fire Chief Steve Herzberg. “We’ll be one agency, not two. We will be staffed properly and we will be one set of one board and one command structure.”

That merger alone has been about seven years in the making and representatives from the Bodega Bay and the fast-growing Sonoma County Fire District approved terms in July.

The Sonoma County Fire District will now stretch from Bodega Bay along the lower Russian River into Windsor, forming a horseshoe around Santa Rosa, incorporating what was formerly Central Fire and Rincon Valley fire.

The Sonoma County Fire District’s annual budget is $23.6 million and the department has 26 full-time firefighters, 14 of which are also paramedics, according to the district’s website.

Bodega Bay currently has 12 full-time firefighters and paramedics but that number should expand to 15 once consolidation is completed. That will allow five crew members per shift; two per ambulance and three per fire engine.

Wildfires are rare along the coast and consolidation supporters stressed Bodega Bay’s crew mostly handle emergency calls involving tourists.

“In Bodega Bay, depending on how you count it, well above 85 percent of our calls are medical or rescue,” Herzberg said.

Bodega Bay has been cash strapped for years and had looked toward last year’s proposed Measure B transient occupancy tax increase for assistance. It would have raised about $2.7 million annually for fire services, as well as struggling schools in west county.

Voters rejected the measure in March 2021 and that led to the departure of four fire staff members.

Following Measure B’s failure, the county brought in consultants to study whether voters would support a future fire tax. Tuesday, those consultants advised the board not to pursue a fire tax this year as their polling found support among voters came up just shy of the two-thirds threshold necessary to pass.

Breakdown of consolidation and funding agreements:

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved $9 million to cover consolidation efforts that are expected to streamline the local fire agency network

Consolidations include community service areas (CSA) — regions without dedicated fire coverage.

Here are the moves advanced Tuesday and how much funding is involved:

Gold Ridge Fire Protection District and seven volunteer fire companies: Ft. Ross, Camp Meeker, Bodega, Valley Ford, Two Rock, Wilmar and Lakeville. Plus the Wilmar Community Family District and a CSA. Annual funding is $4.4 million plus revenue from the Wilmar CFD, at $131,946 per year.

Sonoma County Fire District and Bodega Bay Fire Protection District: There should be improved response where limited property tax revenue prevents sufficient emergency services. Annual funding will be $3 million, plus $28,000 from with the annexation of three CSAs.

Northern Sonoma County Fire District, the Dry Creek-Sotoyome Community Facility District territories and three CSAs: Annual funding is $1.2 million, plus revenue from the CFD, at $112,849 per year.

Kenwood Fire Protection District will receive $180,000 annually and additional annual payments of $120,000. Money will help stabilize the fire agency until it can partner with another fire department.

The last such countywide proposal, a quarter-cent tax, was rejected by voters in 2020.

Barry Barnes, one of the consultants, advised the board to consider a sunset clause with any future tax as that seemed to draw better support from voters. If the board does pursue a fire tax in 2023 or 2024, Barnes emphasized the need to educate voters about the challenges facing local fire districts.

“Our advice is that this is a good time to take a step back get folks on the same page,” Barnes said. “The community is very happy with the services they’re receiving right now and confident in the services.”

Steve Akre, Sonoma’s fire chief, and Mark Heine, chief of Sonoma County Fire District, expressed their support for pursing a fire tax at a later time.

“I know today isn’t really where any of us wanted to be,” Akre said. “But I know that we can do this in the future when the timing is better.”

The board’s decision Tuesday included a commitment to transfer around $2 million annually in property taxes collected in areas covered by the consolidated districts, once LAFCO signs off on the annexations.

An additional $7.2 million will go to the consolidated districts from the county’s general fund, and sources including public safety taxes and hotel bed taxes.

The board also signed off on a move to collect hotel bed taxes on overnight visitors at Sonoma County Regional Park campgrounds, a move estimated to bring in $250,000 to $300,000 annually. That revenue will go to the county’s Fire Services Project Fund.

“It’s been a long time coming and today the agreement was really all about the money, which then allows us to move forward and puts us into position to annex these area,” said Fred Peterson, director of Northern Sonoma County Fire Protection District.

Peterson’s agency covers more than 273 square miles and serves approximately 7,000 residents.

If consolidation takes place, the Dry Creek-Sotoyome Community Facility District territories will be added to its jurisdiction, allowing “more robust and coordinated” response and fire prevention in those regions, Peterson said.

Northern Sonoma County Fire Protection District will hold a board meeting this week to discuss the LAFCO process, which he expects could be finalized as early as this summer.

Supervisor Chris Coursey echoed Akre and Heine in calling for an eventual rerun of the fire tax proposal with voters, noting the county is “getting into the fire business in ways we haven’t before.”

The county, he said, must “make sure we have a distinct revenue source for fire ... that’s not dependent on the general fund.”

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or emma.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MurphReports. You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at colin.atagi@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @colin_atagi

Emma Murphy

County government, politics reporter

The decisions of Sonoma County’s elected leaders and those running county government departments impact people’s lives in real, direct ways. Your local leaders are responsible for managing the county’s finances, advocating for support at the state and federal levels, adopting policies on public health, housing and business — to name a few — and leading emergency response and recovery.
As The Press Democrat’s county government and politics reporter, my job is to spotlight their work and track the outcomes.

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