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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.

The Board of Supervisors is set to review the favored plan in November. The board could decide to use it as a template for change and for considering further financial outlays. The effort also could languish on a shelf alongside prior studies of fire services and funding in Sonoma County — a topic debated over the past three decades.

Beyond the five city departments in the county, there are roughly 21 fire districts and 14 volunteer companies responsible for fire coverage in unincorporated areas.

Altogether, the agencies operate with an annual budget of more than $82 million and respond to about 55,000 calls in a county with a population of about a 495,000.

The topic is highly charged because many of the rural agencies have ties to their communities’ earliest days, a hard won-identity that residents and firefighters alike are loathe to lose.

Off to slow start

The latest study started in August 2014 following requests from fire officials for some county direction on the future, with the current network increasingly torn between opposing needs.

The review got off to slow start, weighed down by skepticism and the sheer size of the huge advisory committee. Many members said it wouldn’t lead to change or would result in change they wouldn’t like.

On Saturday, as part of a final step in the process, about 45 fire officials and chiefs from two dozen fire departments spent four hours at the Graton fire station hashing over the proposals in an attempt to prepare for the upcoming vote.

Some worried the study hadn’t gone far enough and wasn’t ready to go to the supervisors.

“I fear if we come up with a half-baked recommendation then the county is going to give us a half-baked resolution and we’ll have to live with it,” Mayacamas Volunteer Fire Company Chief Will Horne said.

Others saw promise in signals from the Board of Supervisors that they were willing to offer more money and said it was time to act.

Ming, the Forestville and Russian River fire chief, said he was ready to move ahead as long as changes could be made on the chosen proposal, which he acknowledged was not as detailed as he wished. “I’m optimistic,” he said. “But here we are in crunch time, it’s a little bit disturbing, we’re changing things, adding things. Should we be making recommendations on stuff not fully vetted?”

Rancho Adobe Fire Chief Frank Treanor, who has been critical of what he has called the study’s snail-like progress and apparent lack of direction, was buoyed after Saturday’s meeting.

“I’m encouraged with where this is going. They’re starting to put some muscle on the skeleton,” Treanor said.

Among the funding requests raised in the discussion, fire officials said they want:

A reprieve from annual dispatching costs of about $750,000.

To recover an annual loss of more than $1 million countywide from a statewide shift in tax money to education and law enforcement. The shift goes back about 20 years and has affected rural fire departments across the North Coast and the state.

To resolve uncertainty about making up the possible loss of about $1 million or more in annual property tax money that supports the county’s shared budget for volunteer fire companies. The loss would stem from a combination of bids by fire districts serving Geyserville and Schell Vista to annex land and the accompanying tax revenues, as well as the more immediate potential loss of about $250,000 annually resulting from the consolidation of volunteer companies in Sea Ranch and Annapolis into an independent district.

For volunteer companies, the loss of property tax dollars from the annexations and new district could leave a gaping hole in their budget, one that is already propped up by the breakfasts, barbecues and bake sales that happen seemingly year-round at rural stations.

Thinning rural ranks

Some supervisors have acknowledged recently that the county needed to do more as it has gotten away with spending little, including no general fund money, for the effort provided by the citizen firefighters.

That acknowledgment, however, may have come too late to save the thinning firefighting ranks in some communities, including Bloomfield, which is set to suspend its company after retaining too few volunteers. Other stations are struggling with the same trend, a trend driven by shifting demographics, long-distance commutes, ever-busier lives and training mandates that require the same instruction for volunteers as paid firefighters.

That dynamic has been part of the conversation regarding how many fire agencies the county can continue to support.

For many of the communities considering consolidation with nearby agencies, the question has long been, “What do I lose?” said Freeman, the Sonoma Valley fire chief.

Sonoma County Fire Chief Al Terrell, who oversees the volunteer companies, is one of several members of the advisory group who have voiced support for a single countywide fire agency. Most counties get by with far fewer agencies and some in the Bay Area and Southern California have just one to cover unincorporated areas.

Still, Terrell and others at the Saturday meeting all but dismissed that proposal as too premature in Sonoma County.

“Incremental regional consolidation is a good option,” Terrell said.

Marin County Fire Chief Jason Weber said he sympathized with those seeking to reshape Sonoma County’s fire services network.

“I don’t envy anyone involved in the conversation,” Weber said. “There are no shortage of challenges.”

Marin County already has gone through several such attempts and has reduced the number of fire agencies from more than 30 to 18. But like Sonoma County, Marin has its contingents of volunteer, district and city agencies, along with the county department of about 162 paid employees.

“All of us have tried to work through the consolidation piece,” said Weber, who said that shared services, not complete mergers, seemed to provide the most short-term benefit and least blowback.

“Communities are very passionate about their fire departments,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com or Twitter @rossmannreport.

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