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KFPD updated fire assessment slated for November ballot

After 34 years, residential fire tax by the square foot, ag by the acre

by Jay Gamel

It’s official: The Kenwood Fire Protection District (KFPD) will ask voters to approve a new fire “benefit” assessment that will raise the existing $40 per parcel rate to a more equitable $0.12 per square foot formula. While the result will be a substantially higher tax rate, it provides a necessary update to the $40 rate, which was set in 1987 with no cost of living or other adjustments and yields from $42,000 to $44,000 a year.

“The increase, looking at percentage one year to the next, looks like a lot, but against the backdrop of when [the existing tax] was passed so long ago, it’s not,” district board chairman August Moretti said. “It had no inflation adjustment and hasn’t been raised since it was implemented. It is hard to compare the two without noting [the rate] hasn’t been raised in so many years.” The revised assessment includes a cost-of-living clause and caps the total amount that can be raised in a particular year to the rates listed in the new ordinance. If the maximum amount isn’t needed, the rates will be lowered, Moretti explained.

Those new rates are $.012 a square foot per assessor’s parcel number (APN) for residential, multifamily residential, and commercial/industrial-coded buildings; $100 per parcel of vacant land; and $16 per acre for agricultural land (no change if under one acre; over 300 acres capped at $4,800). Land-use codes are applied by the county assessor’s office and are reflected on the annual tax statements sent out to property owners. The revised assessment will be on the Nov. 2 consolidated general election ballot, with details posted at the Sonoma County Registrar’s webpage. The official proposal reads, “… shall Kenwood Fire Protection District Ordinance No. 2021/22-01, authorizing the District to levy a special tax based on use codes shown on Attachment ‘A’ of the Ordinance of $0.12 per square foot for residential and commercial properties; and $16 per acre for agricultural land, raising approximately $300,000 annually until repealed; and increasing the District’s appropriations limit to permit spending of the revenue raised by the special tax, be approved?”

Two-thirds of those voting from the KFPD’s approximately 1,200 voters will have to approve the new assessment. There are 677 households in the KFPD, according to voting records.

The 2021–2022 KFPD budget will be finalized in September. It anticipates losing $200,000 on an expected outlay of just over a million dollars.

That deficit will only continue to increase without a new source of funds, fire chief Daren Bellach said.

The increasing deficit raises a huge barrier to the KFPD consolidating with larger groups, such as Sonoma Valley Fire District to the south or the far larger Sonoma County Fire District to the north, which absorbed the Rincon Valley, Bennett Valley, Russian River, and Mountain Volunteer fire districts, and is currently in the process of absorbing the Forestville district.

Dangerous and costly wildfires have proliferated since 2017 conflagrations wiped out over 5,500 homes throughout the county. Sonoma County supervisors stepped up their ongoing effort to consolidate the 36 independent fire districts for efficiency and cost effectiveness. Today, Kenwood’s fire district is an island of self-governance in the north Sonoma Valley, as fire districts to the south merged in 2018 and many fire districts surrounding Santa Rosa followed suit, forming the Sonoma County Fire District.

There are five other consolidated districts, leaving just four county-subsidized volunteer agencies — called County Service Area 40 (CSA40) districts — in some form of consolidation or other.

Four of those CSA40 volunteer regions are in the process of being helped financially to merge with neighbors, including the perennially troubled Bodega Bay Volunteer Fire District, which serves hundreds of square miles of Sonoma Coast with very little property tax support.

Kenwood’s low revenues and low firefighter pay make it a liability to potential mergers. Kenwood’s firehouse also needs expensive upgrades or outright replacements to facilitate the hiring of more firefighters.

Lack of pay parity and low revenue stymied Kenwood’s attempt to merge with the Glen Ellen, Valley of the Moon, and Mayacamas fire districts in 2018. Those districts have merged to form the Sonoma Valley Fire District, which will include the city of Sonoma in the future.

Starting pay for an engineer in the Sonoma Valley Fire District in January 2019 was $25.42 per hour, or $26.69 per hour with a medic certification. Similar rates apply for the Sonoma County Fire District. A Kenwood engineer started at $17 an hour. And while that rate has been boosted since, it still falls significantly below prevailing rates.

Chief Bellach estimates Kenwood will need up to $900,000 annually to make consolidation possible.

The proposed new tax rate will bring in $250,000 more than it currently takes in from the special assessment taxes. Sonoma County will contribute another $180,000 a year to help “stabilize” the district’s budget if it agrees to keep moving toward consolidation.

The new assessment has the support of the entire board of directors, the fire chief, and the Kenwood Firefighters Association (KFA), which voted in June to back raising revenue.

“We held a large association meeting in June which had solid attendance,” (KFA) president Joe Platt said. “Close to every member of the association was present for the meeting. The vote was unanimous. No one abstained or voted against supporting the increase.”

Platt said firefighters are very aware of the district’s situation.

“I think the reason for that has a lot to do with what the tax is intended for and recognition that the tax, as it sits, has been the same dollar amount for 34 years. That’s never been addressed or changed in any way. Costs go up over the years. We have fewer volunteers able to respond to calls and challenges with staffing to maintain the [two-person per engine] staffing we do 24/7,” Platt said. “But we understand that it’s not the easiest thing to accept a cost increase.”

On the bright side, “The advantage that Kenwood residents have is knowing that all their money stays here in Kenwood and goes to our fire department,” Platt added. Platt is a volunteer who works as a commercial insurance broker and has been with Kenwood for four years. He’s serving his second term as president of the KFA.

Denny Rosatti, a Santa Rosa-based election consultant hired to help the district pass the measure, is taking a detailed survey of voters and preparing a campaign to inform and persuade people to support the new tax. So far, results show that 71 percent of voters would support the tax. After hearing about the benefits of a second sales tax measure, that number rose to more than 80 percent, Rosatti said.

“Voters are very supportive of the district retaining and adding firefighters, collaborations across district boundaries, and outreach to support community preparedness,” Rosatti said.

A flyer has already been mailed with a survey card to most households in the district, seeking public input.

Written arguments for or against the measure must be under 300 words and filed with the Office of the Registrar of Voters (435 Fiscal Dr. Santa Rosa, CA 95403) no later than 5 p.m. on Aug. 13. Arguments must be accompanied by a Statement of Accuracy, available from the Registrar of Voters, signed and dated by the author(s).

If arguments in favor of and against the measure are submitted, the respective authors may submit a rebuttal argument of 250 words to the same address. Rebuttal arguments must also be accompanied by a Statement of Accuracy, signed and dated by the author(s). The deadline for filing a rebuttal argument is 5 p.m. on Aug. 20.