Sonoma County sales tax Measure G would give budget surge especially for rural fire agencies
A half-cent sales tax measure slated for the March 3 ballot promises to raise about $51 million a year for fire service and prevention in Sonoma County, doling out, for example, $5.5 million to Santa Rosa and $3.3 million to the rural Monte Rio Fire District, part of an ambitious bid to lift the capability of all agencies to fight and avert disastrous fires, floods and more.
Measure G would pool sales tax receipts from across the county, including the biggest cities - Santa Rosa and Petaluma, which make up 60% of the sales tax base - and distribute it to 18 fire districts, 10 volunteer fire companies, six cities and two county departments or programs.
Some smaller fire districts will see their budgets double or even triple. But larger city departments, like Santa Rosa’s, the largest municipal agency, will get only a small boost. A Sonoma County-sponsored brush management program, as well as the county’s Emergency Management Department, would split $4.5 million, doubling their current combined budgets.
During an October board meeting, just four days before the Kincade fire broke out, Supervisor David Rabbitt, the board chairman at the time, touted the ballot measure as a way to extend modern, professional firefighting standards and service to the county’s rural corners.
“This was not an exercise in finding ways to spend a dollar amount,” Rabbitt said. “It’s not an opportunity for a tax. The tax is an opportunity to provide a much higher level of fire service that I think we all want in this county.”
The revenue would support the hiring of about 200 paid firefighters countywide and help achieve so-called silver level staffing standards at all agencies, at three per engine - still below what is expected in major metropolitan areas.
To get there, the county’s various fire districts will need some help. Extra staffing represents about half of the $51 million plan, with facilities and equipment upgrades, brush management and upgrades to county emergency alert and warning systems taking up the rest of the spending.
The plan would shift $4.5 million into county government coffers to overhaul the county’s oft-criticized brush management program and supercharge an emergency notification system county leaders say has dramatically improved since failures and missteps in the 2017 firestorm.
The $1.9 million that would be funneled into the county’s vegetation management program would more than double the current general fund allotment of $900,000 for the program, which officials have said is insufficient to keep up with the county’s need to clear fire fuel or maintain fire breaks.
The county has come up for criticism for failing to clear areas around county roads, even while inspecting and fining homeowners for hazardous brush buildup.
The county’s Department of Emergency Management would see a $2.55 million boost to its $3.6 million budget to bolster its work on emergency alerts. Emergency Management Director Chris Godley said the money would go toward warning systems, staff, training, technology and the creation of an emergency situation center at the current fire and medical dispatch headquarters. The county has no plans to build a new emergency operations center, Godley said.
The tax has no sunset date, though it could be repealed through a ballot measure.
Officials are pledging transparency and oversight in the form of a citizens committee, to be helmed by two supervisorial appointees, two members appointed by Sonoma County mayors and three Sonoma County Fire Chiefs Association appointees.
You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at email@example.com.