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Sonoma County’s Measure G would increase sales tax to strengthen firefighting network

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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.

“The danger of it not passing is there is no plan B. There is no other funding stream that’s going to come to fruition that meets those needs,” said Sonoma County Fire District Chief Mark Heine, who is helping spearhead the measure. “If it doesn’t pass we’ll continue as we currently are, in a place of being grossly understaffed, not having additional revenue with costs continuing to escalate.”

With California’s earlier primary this year, the campaign in favor of the measure faces a tight window to secure support, including the late push to rope in cities. And it is not the only countywide tax on the March ballot — SMART is asking voters for an early, 30-year extension of its quarter-cent sales tax.

With a daunting two-thirds majority required for approval, fire officials are acknowledging Measure G may come up short.

Polling and surveys paid for by the county just before the Oct. 23 Kincade fire indicated the measure could prevail because of voters’ worries about another 2017-type wildfire. Support among those surveyed increased if the money was pledged to better prepare firefighters for another monster blaze and if the county emergency alert systems improved, according to the staff report to Board of Supervisors.

Now, with the Kincade fire scar still starkly visible in northeastern Sonoma County and massive fires burning in Australia, fire protection likely remains on voters’ minds and could push the measure over the top, chiefs said.

“People will remember the Tubbs, they will remember the Kincade, and the hardships and successes of both,” Gossner said. “We’re going to be in this (fire) cycle” for years.

No formal opposition

There is no organized opposition to the ballot measure. The Sonoma County Taxpayer’s Association, which often weighs in on ballot measures, isn’t taking a position, with mixed opinions in the group on the matter, said Dan Drummond, the executive director.

“Obviously the county darn-near burned to the ground twice in the last three years,” Drummond said. “We clearly need to augment and bolster unincorporated fire services.”

But he questioned the county’s abilities as a conduit for collecting and dispersing the money, criticizing supervisors’ and county administrators’ track record tackling homelessness and the still-rising cost of county employee pensions, among other declared county crises.

“If they can’t deal with 200  homeless people on a rat-infested trail,” Drummond said, “are they up to handling $51  million” for fire?

Fire officials spearheading the measure say safeguards are in place to assure taxpayers the money will be spent appropriately. They include yearly audits, a citizen oversight committee and a report every three years on consolidation progress to supervisors and the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), which regulates boundaries and associated funding for public agencies.

Hopkins defended the framework and oversight built into the tax measure. The funds won’t be allowed to fill current debt, including unfunded accrued pension liabilities.

“We have this very specific formula developed by this coalition of fire chiefs and labor. It allocates the funding based on need and trying to achieve an adequate level of service,” she said. “They’re not going to be handing heaping piles of money to the Board of Supervisors. This is preset.”

Drummond also pointed to a separate influx of new firefighting money from several recent parcel tax measures approved by voters to benefit rural fire districts.

“We have sort of a money grab going on,” Drummond said. “They’re rushing to get these parcel taxes in when they have a potential sales tax coming.”

Taxes for services

Since November 2018 voters have approved six new parcel taxes for fire and emergency medical services, raising a total of $5.8 million annually for the rural fire districts. In some cases, the increased taxes doubled fire districts’ annual budgets, such as Graton fire, which went from an $800,000 budget to $1.6 million. And that could climb to about $2 million or so with the sales tax, said Graton Fire Chief Bill Bullard.

The parcel tax money will hire six firefighters — the first salaried firefighters for the historically volunteer district near Sebastopol. Measure G funds would add three more paid firefighters for Graton — meeting the shared goal of three firefighters on an engine in much of the county.

Another parcel tax will go before Geyserville-area voters in May for the Northern Sonoma County Fire Protection District. And Kenwood fire is considering a parcel tax vote for the fall.

Also, more fire money is coming into the county from consolidations, including from the county’s fastest-growing fire agency, the Sonoma County Fire District. It has been patched together from the agencies that originally served Windsor, Rincon Valley, Bennett Valley and the Mountain fire jurisdictions, leading to a hike in district income as most homeowners in those areas pay about $180 a year in parcel tax to support fire services.

Fire chiefs whose parcel taxes have already passed said their financial and staffing issues couldn’t wait for possible sales tax relief. The sales tax money will allow another, welcome layer of investment, bringing more professional urban standards to rural areas, such as three firefighters on an engine, chiefs said.

For his part, Bullard was hopeful Measure G will pass.

“We need to have the surge capacity multiple times a year when something goes sideways,” he said. “This creates a level of resiliency and guaranteed service that doesn’t exist today.”

Other fire leaders, however, suspect the multiple firefighting taxes could cause voter confusion, tax weariness or wariness in the March 3 vote.

“My guess is voters from Gold Ridge, Graton, places where they just passed a parcel tax, they’ll think ‘I just voted for a tax increase for fire departments, why am I going to vote for this?’ ” said Jack Piccinini, retired chief of Windsor and Rincon Valley fire.

Mixed reception on tax

The cities are considered key players in the measure’s success as they hold the county’s highest number of voters. Fire and county officials still are making their pitch to leaders in several municipalities, with a unanimous vote of support from the Santa Rosa council and other results pending.

“It’s critical for the cities to be supportive of it,” said Heine, the Sonoma County Fire District chief. “We’re asking a lot of the cities.”

Yet some city officials say the late effort gave them no chance to weigh in on an important countywide tax question before supervisors put it on the ballot.

“The county spent years working with local fire district and interests … but when the time came to put the ballot measure out, you know how much time we were given? Thursday end of business and they wanted an answer Monday,” said Landman, the Cotati councilman. “I think it was inadvertent. But it’s not the type of thing that screams partnership.”

Petaluma’s council heard the pitch in December, but members were left cold from a lack of answers, Mayor Teresa Barrett said. The city’s portion of Measure G revenue — about $1.3 million, or 3% of the total — also concerned council members. Petaluma carries much of the firefighting load for the south county.

The city is considering its own fall tax ballot measure for funding needs, Barrett said.

“The county should have done a little better on this fire tax … talking to the cities about what our needs were and what our concerns were,” Barrett said, noting the City Council had no plan to take a stand on Measure G.

“It just doesn’t seem like something the people of Petaluma would be willing to support,” Barrett said.

But Supervisor David Rabbitt, a former Petaluma councilman, said critics from his city were forgetting a key lesson from the past three years of fire — the interdependence of much of the county during big emergencies.

“To quibble about a percentage is shortsighted,” he said. “At some point everyone is mutual-aid dependent. Every firefighting agency will be vastly improved.”

Hopkins said she’s aware of concerns from city officials and hopes to get the cities and county working together on emergency needs. “I’m totally open to figuring out ways to institute partnerships going forward.”

Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm supported the tax but said he was concerned regarding how it could affect a future vote to extend the city’s public safety Measure O sales tax, which provides millions of dollars each year for police and fire needs.

Still, Schwedhelm said the tax measure’s regional structure offers a way forward to combat fires and other disasters that don’t stop for city boundary lines, the Tubbs and Kincade fires serving as prime examples.

“Neither started in the city of Santa Rosa, but both had tremendous impact on the city of Santa Rosa,” the mayor said.

Some $20 million of the annual Measure G revenue would be raised in Santa Rosa, the county’s main shopping hub, according to Gossner, the city’s fire chief, and about $5.5 million would stay in the city.

It would pay for a new fire inspector and a second battalion chief, as well as increased brush management. It would help open three new Santa Rosa fire stations.

The six cities with their own fire departments are exempt from the consolidation requirement. But fire districts covering a city and more territory, including Cotati and Cloverdale, have to meet the consolidation criteria to get their share.

“We have not taken a position on the fire tax at this point,” said Carol Giovanatto, board president of the Cloverdale Fire Protection District. The money would help, she said, giving Cloverdale about $900,000 on top of their $1.4 million budget, freeing up funds to hire more firefighters.

“I think the concept is good, but I think there needs to be more work done on it when it is actually operational,” Giovanatto said.

Fire agency mergers

Sonoma County fire departments, districts and companies have a history of fierce independence, which has eased in recent years amid the push to consolidate. With the number of agencies dropping from more than 50 at one point to 38 now, the motive to streamline has strengthened, with supervisors promising money for consolidation.

That message spurred some, like Heine. He’s merged four agencies and is in the process of adding two more to Sonoma County Fire District — an effort that could cost the county more than $4 million annually to support running some of the financially struggling agencies.

But consolidation remains a charged issue, cutting into community identity. While many chiefs are supportive, not all want to hurry and some don’t like being under threat of financial punishment.

Supporters like Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman say it’s time to let go of identity and control.

“It’s not just our community, it’s what’s good for the whole county,” said the longtime chief. “Nobody asks, ‘What’s it say on the side of your truck?’ They say, ‘Somebody’s here to help us.’ ”

While many chiefs understand consolidation is in the future, not all are in a hurry.

That came into sharp focus last fall when efforts to gain support in fire circles for Measure G took a stumble over its wording, which at the time mandated that fire agencies had to be moving toward one countywide agency or risk not getting their share of funds.

The heated revolt sparked an 11th-hour rewrite, watering down the requirement just before supervisors voted in November to place the measure on the spring ballot.

That eased concerns, but angst remained amid an unprecedented spate of political and geographical jockeying by fire chiefs and agency board members under pressure to show change.

Some have equated the measure’s mandate — work on consolidation or lose out on funding — with extortion, said Ernie Loveless, a Schell-Vista fire board member and retired Cal Fire chief. “Consolidation and annexation are a great thing. The fewer fire departments the better. But it has to make sense.”

Others characterized the turmoil as simply growing pains for an entrenched system in flux.

“The fire service leaders are making the best plan they can. I won’t say there’s not some distrust in how it’s going to be distributed or what (LAFCO) will do in the future,” said Gold Ridge Fire Chief Shep Schroth-Cary. “But there’s not a single agency that is not going to benefit.”

Staff Writer Tyler Silvy contributed to this report.

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