Sonoma County supervisors endorse funding boost to aid fire services

In a significant step away from past practice, county supervisors agreed to dip further into discretionary funds to help fill funding gaps for struggling fire agencies countywide.|

Noting the devastation facing neighboring Lake County in the wake of the Valley fire and acknowledging years of funding shortfalls that have stressed rural fire agencies, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday pledged to seek an additional $800,000 this year for fire services, a boost that would add to the $1.1 million already set aside.

The board also voted 5-0 to help the county’s more than three dozen rural fire agencies form regional partnerships and to set up an advisory council aimed at giving fire agencies a stronger voice at the county level.

Fire officials were asking for about $9.5 million but the board stuck with the lesser allocation, which still represented a significant break from past practice as county leaders for decades have resisted dipping into discretionary funds to support fire agencies.

In rejecting the larger request, supervisors said they were concerned about finances and cited the pressure of payroll costs as the county pursues new contracts with most of its labor groups. The board also recently approved an additional ?$13 million for road repairs.

Ultimately, the board endorsed a search for the additional $800,000 for fire services early next year, possibly from future hotel bed taxes and sales taxes.

Supervisors also said they knew more money would be necessary in subsequent years to help many of the struggling fire agencies find new volunteers and improve aging facilities and equipment.

“In the wake of the vicious fire season” there is a heightened awareness of the role of firefighters, board Chairwoman Susan Gorin said. “We could have been Lake County.”

Altogether, a trio of major wildfires, including the deadly Valley fire, scarred 171,000 acres in Lake County, killing four people and burning 1,329 homes.

Supervisor David Rabbitt called fire services a basic public necessity and said he supported higher ongoing spending “to make sure we do have the most efficient, professional firefighting capacity here in Sonoma County.”

The decision and talk of financial support played well with the sea of dark blue uniforms in the audience as 50 or so fire chiefs, fire board members and firefighters attended the hearing.

Many had participated in an arduous 14-month, county-driven study to figure out how to streamline Sonoma County’s complex firefighting system of about 42 fire agencies, with a mix of volunteer and paid fire districts, volunteer fire companies and a handful of city agencies.

Tuesday’s requests came from the study’s advisory committee.

“It’s all good,” Schell-Vista Fire District Chief Ray Mulas said after the hearing. “It was worth the effort.”

“Change is about to occur that will benefit the community. We’re evolving,” said Al Terrell, who leads the county’s Fire and Emergency Services Department, which oversees the county’s dozen or so volunteer fire companies.

Grateful fire chiefs said Tuesday’s action was a huge, first step as support from the county in the past was mainly verbal.

“This is a really proud day for everybody in Sonoma County fire services,” said Brian Elliot, a retired Cloverdale fire chief and private fire agency consultant.

Several agency leaders said the regional plan will help push agencies to work more closely, share chiefs, supervisors and equipment, and increase the chance of consolidating, which would reduce the number of departments.

The new nine-member advisory council also was an important component as chiefs hoped it would keep countywide fire issues in front of supervisors. Those in attendance Tuesday signaled that they are hoping for a steady increase in annual funding in the next few years.

“I think there is consensus we’ll have to stay on top of it. The tough nut to crack is going to be next year, getting some significant money,” said Dan George, chief of the Gold Ridge and Bennett Valley fire districts.

The study was the latest of at least seven undertaken by the county in recent decades to look for improvements to the county’s complex fire services network. While county officials routinely said they supported fire services, most of the studies were shelved.

Supervisor James Gore noted the frustration of fire officials regarding those ignored studies, which typically included a call for more county money.

“Today is a time for us to start that action,” Gore said.

“We have to step up and have a long-term plan. We have to make sure this is not another report that’s put on the shelf,” Rabbitt said.

Fire officials in the past year ramped up efforts to lobby supervisors and county officials, holding frequent meetings to push for improved support.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who along with Gore took the lead on the issue, said the effort by fire officials helped educate county officials and convinced them of the need.

“The county didn’t understand the breadth of the services provided and the issues,” Carrillo said.

The $1.1 million approved for distribution this year will include $800,000 to cover one year of dispatching costs for all of the agencies outside city limits.

The remaining $800,000 or so fire chiefs hope to get would pay to set up and run the advisory council, recruit and retain volunteers and help fill budget holes by recovering taxpayer funds that have been shifted to other uses in the past several years, including education.

The dispatch reimbursement will vary per agency depending on calls for service. For Gold Ridge Fire District in southern Sebastopol, that’s about $30,000 annually. For Central Fire, which combines Windsor and Rincon Valley, it’s about $120,000.

George said his Gold Ridge fire board could use that $30,000 to help pay down debt for a new engine being financed or it could improve incentives for volunteers, including better pay for overnight shifts.

As part of the hearing, supervisors were given a picture of local fire issues, taken from an analysis of data provided to the county in the last year by most fire agencies. There are 91 fire facilities in the county, about half of which are old and would require about $50 million to fix or replace, said Chris Thomas, the assistant county administrator who shepherded the study.

If the county fire system was fully integrated it wouldn’t need as many stations or all of the 141 fire engines it has now, Thomas said.

As well as aging fire houses and engines, the county’s dwindling volunteer force also is aging. While there were about 1,000 volunteers in 1983, a corps of about 660 exists today. Of those, about 300 were between their 50s and mid-70s, according to county statistics.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.? ?On Twitter @rossmannreport.

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