Sonoma County fire chiefs seek $42 million cash infusion to bolster services, staffing

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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Fire officials on Tuesday will ask the Board of Supervisors to approve a $42 million annual plan calling for more firefighters and new fire stations to plug response holes in the county — with a recommendation of a half-cent countywide sales tax hike to voters next year to fund it.

The plan would add about 175 paid firefighters, many of them paramedics, to bolster the county’s current paid firefighting force of 400. It also calls for 10 new fire stations to house round-the-clock staff, some of those in rural areas now served by volunteers.

One new station would replace a small volunteer firehouse in the hills north of Santa Rosa where the Tubbs fire swept into the county in October. Another would go up in Jenner, improving response times to emergencies on Highway 1 and the coast communities. Others are slated for Bloomfield in the west county and Lakeville, south of Petaluma.

It also calls for two new stations in Santa Rosa and one each in Rohnert Park and Petaluma, either replacing small, outdated structures or adding stations in areas more suited for current needs.

Fire officials called the plan a road map, with many details still to be fixed if and when funding is available. But the sweeping plan marks the first time the county’s historically fractured fire services community has come together on something to reshape the local firefighting landscape.

Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner said the unified support for the plan is significant, involving many agencies whose representatives realized what it would mean for county residents.

“Not only will we have a higher level of service, we will have a better coordinated and managed response to emergencies in our county,” Gossner said.

Last fall’s firestorm that burned across huge portions of Santa Rosa and the county helped fuel efforts to form a plan to improve emergency response capabilities. It also solidified the Board of Supervisors’ determination to make changes.

“We may not have been able to skip what happened last October,” but with the plan in place, the county could have offered a stronger response, said Jim Colangelo, interim head of the county’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services.

After past boards shortchanged funding for county fire services, current supervisors have stepped up funding, providing $3.5 million for this year and nearly $4 million during the two proceeding years. That still falls well below what is needed to modernize and improve local services, fire chiefs say.

“It’s really about increasing that ability to get enough people and equipment to the site,” said Colangelo, who helped spearhead the plan. “In urban areas there is a good level of service, a lot of redundancy. But further away from the urban core, the more the service level becomes more about one engine with a couple people on it. We want to expand that higher level of service to more incidents and handle simultaneous incidents better.”

Still, while many may agree on the benefits of having more firefighters, better station locations and updated equipment, selling the public on an ongoing countywide sales tax could be more difficult.

“This is no small mission ahead of us if it’s going to be successful,” said Doug Williams, chairman of the county’s fire advisory committee and former chief of Rincon Valley and Windsor fire agencies.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

All nine cities in Sonoma County would need to endorse the tax hike before the county could place it on the ballot. In addition, advocates also would need to obtain a waiver from the Legislature to allow Cotati and Sebastopol to increase their sales taxes above the 9.25 percent state-imposed cap.

If supervisors proceed with a sales tax measure in 2019, it could go to voters in March, June or November. This November, county voters will decide on a proposed eighth‑cent countywide sales tax to support county parks. Separately, Santa Rosa has two tax measures on its ballot — a $124 million housing bond measure and a quarter-cent sales tax increase that would raise $9 million for the city.

Countywide tax measures have had mixed success in the past. Unincorporated voters rejected a half-cent sales tax outside city limits for county parks in 2016, but the same year voters approved an eighth-cent sales tax countywide to increase library system funding. The previous year, a quarter-cent sales tax for general purposes — but touted by supervisors as a road-funding measure — failed in a countywide election.

Meanwhile, five fire agencies are seeking more money from residents in their districts with ballot measures this November. Those agencies are Monte Rio, Graton, Schell-Vista, Glen Ellen and Rancho Adobe.

An ongoing half-cent tax on sales throughout the county would generate nearly $42 million a year, Colangelo said.

Fire officials said that as the plan includes new fire stations and firefighters inside cities and in unincorporated areas, it includes benefits for all parts of the county. Key components also include 10 more paramedic‑firefighters countywide each shift, extending advanced medical aid to rural areas.

Other details include round‑the‑clock staffing at the Sebastopol and Graton fire stations, where volunteers are now relied on to keep watch during some off-hours periods.

More than half of the $42 million annual price tag — or $25 million — would be used to add staff and supervising battalion chiefs.

While the Board of Supervisors has been asking for such a comprehensive plan, supervisors have also indicated there isn’t enough cash in county coffers to cover such needs without wiping out funding for numerous other county priorities, such as road repair and housing development. Supervisors have signaled they aren’t willing to do that.

Without more money, fire officials have warned of a further decline in emergency response services as bigger agencies become strained by requests for help from rural neighbors. Financial constraints and dwindling volunteers for most of the rural agencies are common.

Sonoma County’s current patchwork of firefighting services reaches back to the 1800s, when volunteer companies emerged. At its peak there were more than 50 agencies. Now there are 39, including city, fire district and volunteer companies, a landscape that nevertheless remains an anomaly among some neighboring counties where fire service has been consolidated.

The current plan to bolster fire services has been evolving since 2014, when the county launched a cumbersome effort to get ideas and consensus from various fire departments on ways to streamline the system. The effort labored for a few years, with many chiefs entrenched in protecting their boundaries. In 2016, supervisors set up a fire advisory council to move things along.

Two years later, the council has its plan. But it’s backed by a fragile coalition, with fire officials agreeing on the big idea but differing over details.

The Board of Supervisors’ discussion on the issue is set to begin sometime after 8:45 a.m. Tuesday.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑521-5412 or On Twitter@rossmannreport.

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