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Kenwood Fire Protection District: A fresh look at consolidation

Director’s report points forward, with concerns about long-term funding

By Jay Gamel

“Consolidation” is the nickname for Sonoma County’s ongoing efforts to nudge as many of its former independent fire districts into a few — if not one — super district, to save money, standardize practices, reduce administrative overhead, and secure a host of other benefits, perceived or otherwise. Underway since 2014, consolidation efforts intensified after the 2017, 2018, and 2020 wildfires ravaged the county, killing dozens of people and wiping out more than 6,000 homes and businesses.

Jack Atkin and Daymon Doss, both directors of the Kenwood Fire Protection District (KFPD), submitted their ad-hoc committee report on where the Kenwood district stands today.

A previous effort to consolidate with the Sonoma Valley Fire District, which includes the former Glen Ellen and Mayacamas Fire Departments and contracts to provide fire protection to the City of Sonoma, failed three years ago when pay disparity scuttled the deal.

The KFPD is one of the smallest fire districts in Sonoma County and pays less than any other district, a constant conundrum when it comes to retaining firefighters. A substantial boost in fire taxes approved two years ago is still not enough to achieve full pay equity in the foreseeable future without some form of subsidy.

Atkin and Doss took on the job to “fully explore the consolidation of the Kenwood Fire Protection District with another fire district and determine whether or not a consolidation was in the best interests of the Kenwood community,” according to their report, submitted on Oct. 11 at the monthly fire board meeting. “By necessity, our exploration required us to consider the long-term ability of an independent Kenwood District to provide an adequate level of fire and emergency services to the community.”

The 13-page report is concise and available online at the website, under Board of Directors/Financials.

After spending weeks reviewing the last consolidation attempt, as well as documents from other mergers, and interviewing directors from other districts, Doss and Atkin concluded that if gap funding can be found that improves the level of service from two people per incident to three, including a paramedic on every shift, “consolidation is in the best interest of the Kenwood community.”

Not consolidating, however, is not attractive, considering the problems in hiring qualified fire people. Chief Daren Bellach estimates it “would cost about $330,000 per year” to offer competitive wages. While the district has enough money to do that, it “would require reducing or eliminating contributions to the capital account for equipment replacement, drawing down operating cash reserves, or finding some new, as yet untapped, source of revenue.”

More telling: “We saw no path to achieve a sustainable higher service level that would include three-person (3.0) staffing or full paramedic capability as an independent district,” the report concluded.

Chances of more county funding are slim, with the county not seeking a new fire tax after a failed attempt in 2020. Without that funding, Kenwood is not an attractive partner for consolidation in that the other party would have to pick up the difference to ensure equal pay. As it is, the county provides Kenwood with $180,000 in “revenue sharing,” and will provide another $120,000 for stabilization for a maximum of 10 years, which could be withdrawn after only two years.

Kenwood fields two people per engine, both of which have Basic Life Support (BLS) training. The Sonoma Valley Fire District, just south, has three-person staffing with a paramedic (Advanced Life Support; ALS), which brings a substantial increase in emergency medical capability to each incident.

The cost of gap funding is estimated to be $1.25 million a year. That would add one more person to regular engine staffing (to three per engine), as well as provide ALS service.

“I hope the district can begin a discussion with the county in regard to gap funding; we need to know that right away,” Doss said.

“We do not need to spend a lot of time talking about something that is not real.”

The report envisions a one- or two-year effort to sort out the issues if a decision is made to move ahead. Should gap funding fail, other deliberations on staffing and service must take place.

“The process has been alleviated somewhat by SVFD agreeing to supply replacements for the next nine months,” Doss said, indicating that might be a way to remain a viable independent district for another few years. Chief Bellach was tasked last month with creating a plan to replace lost personnel.

“This report is the first step; it is far from a final commitment to go forward,” Atkin said. “That is a board decision and important to recognize … Even if the board were to follow the recommendation our committee made, there are some decisions to be made about who to consolidate with, and a big if — if the county doesn’t come up with the gap funding money.”