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Kenwood Fire Protection District looks to up benefit assessment cap

Firefighters start negotiations for wages, benefits

By Jay Gamel

The failure of 2020’s Measure G — a halfcent sales tax proposal aimed at boosting the dollars available to meet heavy new demands on Sonoma County’s firefighting agencies resulting from cataclysmic wildfires, climate change, development pressures, soaring costs to hire and train fire and emergency personnel, and the parallel high costs of maintaining and buying new equipment, left many county firefighting agencies scrambling to sort out future funding. Kenwood Fire Protect District is one of those agencies. At the district’s monthly Board of Directors meeting on April 14, Fire Chief Daren Bellach suggested increasing the existing Benefit Assessment rates from $40 a year per residential parcel to a cap of $200 per year, similar to one passed by neighboring Glen Ellen Fire District several years ago. The Glen Ellen Fire District merged with several local districts last year, but their assessment cap remains the standard for the bigger agency. A capped dollar figure means the full amount would not be imposed until needed. Until then, some percentage would be set by the directors prior to the start of the district’s fiscal year on July 1. Setting a new rate will most likely be approved by mail, but it could wind up as a ballot item this November.

“There will need to be multiple public hearings and at least one town hall meeting,” director Daymon Doss said.

Bellach, at least two firefighters, district counsel Bill Adams, and up to two directors will form an ad hoc group to consider the idea and move it forward this year.

Measure G was expected to raise up to $52 million annually. It required two-thirds approval by voters and lost narrowly. The palpable lack of enthusiasm shown for Measure G among various fire communities last year have dimmed prospects of a second try this year. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors decided a month ago to not push for it in November, but to look at doing it again next year.

We’ll keep you posted.

Inspection fees likely to go up

Increased fees for new development impacts are another potential revenue source, one that was recently visited by the Sonoma Valley Fire District. “SV Fire has already done a lot of the legwork,” Chief Bellach said. “It wouldn’t be a ton of money, but it would be more income.”

The board also discussed adding to fire inspection fees where cited corrections are not made. Kenwood has never charged for commercial inspections before, Bellach noted, but perhaps the district could charge when identified corrections are still undone at the second visit, and a third visit is required to certify. He noted that Kenwood FD did about 50 inspections last year. Instituting a basic commercial inspection fee of $200 could return $10,000 a year, Bellach observed.

Union negotiations off and running

A letter from the Kenwood Professional Firefighters kicked off this year’s contract negotiations on behalf of the district’s 19 paid firefighters. While the initial ask of a 25% raise might seem unlikely considering the impact the disastrous past year has had on the economy, Kenwood’s low pay has been a consistent thorny issue on many fronts. It was the principle reason the district did not consolidate with the Glen Ellen, Valley of the Moon, and Mayacamas fire districts last year — it would have had to pony up the difference to make salaries equal, and that amounted to several million dollars.

Even 25 percent will not bring Kenwood’s firefighters up to county averages, the letter notes. Kenwood firefighters start at $51,000 a year, while Healdsburg firefighters get over $82,000 to start with — indication of how wide the gap is. Gardeners in Cloverdale make almost $63,000 to start.

“In order to meet the minimum qualifications, our Engineers have received roughly 1,000 hours of classroom instruction and manipulative training,” the letter said. “A further 240 hours is required to qualify for Captain. Your Kenwood Firefighters also complete an average of 800 hours of training throughout the year to maintain and perfect skills.

The letter estimates it costs $12,000 to hire a new employee, not including new employee training costs. “This is incurred every time a new employee is hired, and places an additional cost to the district, when multiple employees leave to other departments, highlighting the need to keep employees in Kenwood.”

Building upgrade stalled

The lack of rain and a consequent moratorium on septic system percolation tests have hampered forward movement on building additional living quarters at the Kenwood firehouse. They are needed to provide sleeping quarters for on-call staff for three fire equipment vehicles.

Director Doss said that consultants Adobe Associates are hoping a survey of nearby similar systems will suffice. “Until we get that, there’s no action at this point.”

The KFPD meets on the third Tuesday of each month.