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.