Sonoma County’s Measure G would increase sales tax to strengthen firefighting network
For some 40 years Sonoma County has grasped at different ways to modernize and streamline its uneven and antiquated fire services network, with little success, but a half-cent countywide sales tax on the March ballot would offer, supporters say, a once-in-a-generation chance to achieve pivotal change, bolstering fire services for a new, more combustible era.
Measure G, which needs a two-thirds majority to pass, would generate about $51 million a year, buoying the budgets of some three dozen fire agencies, but with strings attached. Only agencies moving toward consolidation with others will get their share.
Spending priorities include adding 200 ?paid firefighters countywide, new or upgraded fire stations and equipment, more brush clearing and reinforced emergency alert systems. Most steps, including hiring, would take years to accomplish. The tax has no sunset date.
And while most of the tax revenue would be raised in city centers, much of the payout would spread to rural agencies to strengthen the regional safety net, which is stretched to a breaking point in places with not enough volunteers and meager budgets, forcing larger, stronger agencies to cover the holes.
“This tax measure, if it is successful, will change fire services for Sonoma County as we know it. It would have that kind of impact,” said Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner.
With three weeks to go before ballots are mailed ahead of the March 3 election date, the campaign is starting, with a parallel pitch underway to get local cities on board. While a broad corps of fire officials have stressed the need for more money, not everyone in local government and firefighting is rushing to support the measure, and it faces a barrage of questions and concerns, potentially eroding the support it needs to pass.
“I'm undecided,” said Northern Sonoma County Fire Chief Marshall Turbeville.
“I still have some reservations about having the county in control of how the money is distributed, who chooses what is big enough for consolidation, what is deemed ‘enough' to be appropriate for entertaining consolidation efforts,” said Turbeville, echoing several other fire officials who believe the measure's requirements for consolidation are too subjective, leaving them unclear on the rules.
Cotati City Councilman Mark Landman, a retired Novato fire captain, doesn't support the tax. He was concerned about diminished local control by giving the county power over who qualifies for the money.
“I think local communities should have a voice as strong as the Board of Supervisors,” Landman said.
The campaign plays out amidst still-vivid memories of the deadly and devastating fires of 2017 and more recently, the Kincade fire, the county's largest-ever wildland blaze - both examples of what firefighting veterans and climate scientists say is a new, more dangerous epoch for wildfire. The disasters strained Sonoma County's firefighting agencies and resources to unprecedented levels, showing off their strengths, tax supporters said, and but also laying bare the need for an upgraded, more uniform network.
Plan years in making
The tax measure is the most aggressive and cohesive bid to reshape the county's fire services in at least four decades, a period marked by study after study - all shelved - about how to better organize and fund local firefighting.
Sonoma County supervisors, spurred in part by the 2017 disaster and facing mounting calls from fire officials for change, stepped off the sidelines five years ago, ponied up new funding and pledged additional money to rural districts and companies pursuing reform.
But that piecemeal aid competes each year with other discretionary spending - on roads, social services and other needs. So supervisors directed fire officials to develop a sales tax measure and plan a countywide overhaul with the money.
“I think that firefighters do a great job of holding things together with duct tape and bailing twine. People don't realize how threadbare our emergency response system is countywide,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents the west county and sits on an ad hoc committee helping guide efforts.
“I think it's critical to invest robustly in emergency alert and warning systems, boots on the ground, and make sure we have the firefighters we need when the fire we know will come actually comes,” Hopkins said. “Frequent fires is going to be our new reality. We have to be prepared.”
Supporters say that while a more muscular service would aid in big fires, floods and earthquakes, it also would improve daily service to county residents and Wine Country visitors by putting more people on duty, including many who would have advanced emergency medical skills.