A chunk of money usually spent promoting Sonoma County tourism instead will help defray the cost of tourists, as county supervisors Tuesday acknowledged a need to ease strains on emergency services caused by millions of annual visitors, many of whom crash, fall or need quick medical aid.
“I don’t think we’re having a problem now attracting tourists; we’re having a problem mitigating impacts from them,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said.
The discussion regarding tourism impacts came Tuesday as the Board of Supervisors approved disbursing about $15 million in discretionary tourist-raised tax money among 87 nonprofit agencies and nine county departments.
The allocations included a one-time grant of $768,000 for 2016-17 fiscal year fire-dispatching costs for most of the county’s 40 or so firefighting agencies.
Efren Carrillo, the board chairman, explained this year’s allocations included a closer look at tourism’s impact, and that while the money was listed as a one-time payout, he would like to see more.
“My hope is this is going to be ongoing in the future,” Carrillo said.
Tuesday’s allocation means fire agencies using the regional Redcom dispatch center now have two years of dispatching costs covered by the county.
Supervisors last year approved a similar amount for the 2015-16 fiscal year’s dispatching costs from a different tax fund.
Gold Ridge Fire Chief Dan George told supervisors he was grateful they were “finally addressing the impact of tourism on (emergency) services of Sonoma County. We keep pouring money into bringing people here” but it’s not balanced with the impacts to the agencies providing the services, he said.
The Sonoma Coast is a tourist favorite, and Bodega Bay Fire Chief Sean Grinnell said more than two-thirds of his agency’s calls are for people who don’t live in the area. He called the allotted money “a step in the right direction.”
But Grinnell and other chiefs also said they still are seeking an ongoing board commitment for additional annual funding.
Fire chiefs have been frustrated with the county for years, claiming Sonoma County’s complex network of rural agencies has been underfunded, leaving some at risk of folding from lack of funds, too-few volunteers and outdated equipment, or a combination of all three.
Ernie Loveless, president of the Sonoma County Fire District Association, reminded the board Tuesday that just months ago a lengthy county-led study to improve rural fire services resulted in a request of $9 million for a variety of priorities, including dispatch fees.
“I hope we don’t lose track of that,” Loveless said.
That study was the latest of seven undertaken by the county in recent decades searching for ways to streamline and improve fire services. The prior studies had little or no result.
On Tuesday, Sonoma County Administrator Veronica Ferguson said that as well as Tuesday’s allocation, the county was looking to add another $1.2 million to fire services from other funding sources once budget hearings for 2016-17 fiscal year begin.
The most recent county study also resulted in the creation of a fire advisory committee, which supervisors expect will provide recommendations on the most pressing financial needs of rural fire district and volunteer companies.
A large chunk of the money given out Tuesday — more than $6.5 million — went to agencies working to lure tourists, as well as money for improving veterans’ memorial buildings, parks facilities, county signs, visitors centers, agricultural promotion, historical commissions and economic development initiatives.