Fourteen months after Sonoma County officials embarked on an ambitious study to reshape the future of the county’s complex fire services network, an advisory group of fire agency leaders is poised to pick a plan that will be short on details but likely will call for millions of dollars in additional funding.
The process is aimed a modernizing and streamlining what many fire officials say is an antiquated network, relying on roughly three dozen agencies to serve areas outside city limits in the county.
While the level of service in those areas, including fire protection and emergency response, may not change much as a result of the discussion, decisions set in motion over the next month could greatly alter the shape of the network and the ultimate cost to taxpayers.
“We have way too many fire agencies in Sonoma County,” Sonoma Valley Fire Chief Mark Freeman said, echoing an opinion shared by many of his local firefighting peers. He is among a group of department leaders calling for agencies in the same area to consider joining forces or sharing management — a step already taken in Sonoma Valley through the consolidation of the Valley of the Moon and city of Sonoma fire departments.
That option — a regional network made up of a smaller number of agencies covering a larger swath of territory — is one of three proposals facing the group of 70 fire service leaders, who are set to decide next week on their recommendation to the Board of Supervisors.
The other two choices include forming one large countywide agency, most likely to cover the unincorporated area — a variation on what occurs in Marin County — or leaving the status quo in place, with some improvements including additional funding.
Among fire officials, momentum was building last week behind the consolidated regional network or the option to stick with the better-funded status quo. The group’s final recommendation likely will be accompanied by a request to the county come up with far more than the one-time $950,000 the Board of Supervisors has set aside for fire services as part of the study.
A total dollar figure hasn’t been determined, but fire officials have been making a case for years that improving service in rural areas will take additional taxpayer dollars. The funds are needed to upgrade equipment, build new stations and attract and retain volunteer firefighters, fire officials said.
Reluctant to tap funds
So far, the county has resisted tapping its general fund to support those discretionary costs.
The money the county has set aside as part of the study is a “good start,” said Max Ming, the Forestville and Russian River fire chief, but “our plan is much bigger and more expensive.” Ming has thrown his support behind the status quo option with a significantly larger investment of dollars from the county.
Most of the current support for rural fire services is dedicated through property and parcel taxes. But fire agency administrators say those sources haven’t kept pace with rising costs, leading to ever-tighter budgets and pressure on departments that are already faced with holding onto a dwindling number of volunteers.
The study process — and the county’s commitment of some extra money — has emboldened chiefs to lobby for greater long-term support.
“The county wants to know what we need,” Ming said.