Major fire district reorganization gets going
First steps delayed by Kincade Fire
It's no secret that the County of Sonoma has been pushing the 36 or so independent fire districts to reorganize themselves into fewer, leaner, more efficient firefighting and public safety units. The disastrous fires of 2017 and even bigger Kincade Fire of the past few weeks have underscored that necessity, stressing the current fractured system of fire control that relies on a complicated system of mutual aid agreements with state, county and local fire-fighting agencies.
Step one - Expand Glen Ellen “Sphere of Influence”A major step in streamlining Sonoma Valley's fire districts will happen on Nov. 6, at a meeting of the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), 2 p.m. in the Board of Supervisors' chambers in Santa Rosa. Fire districts in California are a type of Special District, whose formation and rules are governed by LAFCO. Every county has a LAFCO, and Sonoma County's is directed by Sonoma Valley resident Mark Bramfitt.
LAFCO will consider expanding Glen Ellen Fire District's Sphere of Influence to encompass four other fire districts - Kenwood, Sonoma Valley, Schell-Vista and Mayacamas, which could then be reorganized into a single, more efficient fire district. These five fire departments comprise Region 3 on the county's map of emergency services.
Mayacamas is not technically an independent fire district; it is one of several small fire departments county-wide designated County Service Area (CSA) 40, which are administered by the county. At some point in the process, Mayacamas will have to be removed from CSA 40 and added to the newly-created larger district.
At the Nov. 6 hearing, LAFCO will consider any relevant oral or written testimony and evidence presented or filed regarding the proposal to consolidate. This is an early step in the overall process. There will be many more opportunities for public input before anything becomes final.
The process is complicated and fraught with territorial concerns that seem to go along with the rugged individuals who have made up the rural volunteer fire fighting groups since the county was settled in the 19th century.
Many moving partsOne indication of how complicated reorganization can be is the fact that the Sonoma Valley Fire District also provides fire and paramedic services for the City of Sonoma under a separate agreement (as Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority), and they also administer Glen Ellen's fire district and provide personnel to make up for the shortfall of volunteers in the district, under a five-year contract that started on Jan. 1, 2017. But Glen Ellen remains an independent fire district with its own board of directors.
One LAFCO responsibility is to review fire districts' Spheres of Influence every five years with a Municipal Service Review (MSR) to see if they are still appropriate. All of the Sonoma Valley fire districts requested MSRs and Glen Ellen additionally requested a Sphere of Influence review earlier this year. If LAFCO determines on Nov. 6 that a reorganization can provide “equal or better” services, the districts can proceed with the process, according to Kenwood Fire District Board member Daymon Doss, one of two additional board members added to Kenwood's district this year.
“What's important is that this is a process, not a final decision, so we can hold meetings and start to gather public opinion,” Doss said. “If LAFCO says this doesn't meet the criteria, it won't go forward.” He noted that the Kenwood Fire District Board has previously said at a public meeting that they would need input from volunteer and paid professional staff, as well as the community of Kenwood within the district.
Glen Ellen board members are in support of the general concept, Glen Ellen Fire District Board member and retired Fire Chief Peter van Fleet said. “The situation that exists in the valley that makes consolidation attractive is that all of the various fire departments are experiencing a shortage of volunteers, and having firefighters staff stations on a 24-hour basis eliminates volunteer response time to the station, thus inevitably, improving response time and service to the communities.”
An Oct. 28 meeting of the Region 3 fire district boards at Hanna Boys Center was cancelled due to the Kincade fire, but the various parties were trying to reschedule a time to meet before the Nov. 6 LAFCO public hearing. “The various boards will hold a joint meeting to try to resolve the different issues each Board faces so that an actual proposal can be voted on in the spring,” van Fleet said. Some of those issues include naming the new district, composition of a new board and sequencing elections to that board, draft financing, and a draft map of the resulting district.
“It is fair to say that we are at the very early stage of exploration of consolidation and that it is likely to be a long time before any actual actions are taken,” van Fleet said.
Financing the new districtOne of the more complicated elements of reorganization is financing. Most, if not all, of the Sonoma Valley districts are at least partially funded with special assessments on property taxes, ranging from $36 to a cap of $200 (in the Glen Ellen and Schell-Vista districts). Kenwood currently assesses $40 per year per single-family residence. These assessments were all approved by district voters in general or special elections.
LAFCO typically picks the district with the highest assessment returns - in this case Glen Ellen - as the sponsoring agency. “Each board that opts into the consolidation proposal would need to adopt the special tax rates that Glen Ellen voters approved and drop any special taxes that have been previously approved in their Districts,” van Fleet said. “I have no doubt that ample opportunity for residents to express their opinions will exist in the process.”
If LAFCO gives its blessing to a proposed reorganization early next year, postcards will be sent to all affected property owners in each district. If 25 percent of a district's property owners protest, the issue may be dropped or put to a public vote.
If things run as hoped for by supporters, the revised assessments will appear on the 2020-2021 tax rolls. A “no” vote at any stage could derail that eventuality.
“This process started before I joined the board,” Doss said. “I support the process, but I'm not at all ready to make a decision on the outcome. We need a lot more information, details. We need to hear from the community and the community-based volunteers who have been in place for many years. All five (Kenwood) board members are very engaged in this process, paying attention to details, and have lots of questions.”
Next stepsAfter the Nov. 6 LAFCO meeting, there will be a Nov. 12 meeting of all the Region 3 fire boards to consider the final form of the resolution to detach Mayacamas Volunteer FD from CSA 40, which will go before the county Board of Supervisors on Dec. 10. Following that, the final reorganization application will be submitted to LAFCO, which is not expected to hold a formal hearing on the request until next March.
So far, two similar reorganizations have taken place in Sonoma County: one in West County, and the latest pulling the Rincon Valley Fire District, Bennett Valley Fire District, and Mountain Volunteer Fire Department into the expanded Sphere of Influence of the Windsor Fire District, to form the new Sonoma County Fire District.
That consolidation provides a template for future efforts to reduce the number of fire agencies, and an object lesson in the complexities involved. The 2016 annexation of Roseland by the City of Santa Rosa left a few small areas not covered after most of the Roseland Fire District was absorbed by the City of Santa Rosa fire agency. In a two-step process, the adjacent Rincon Valley Fire District had its Sphere of Influence modified to include those small parcels and then they were merged into Rincon Valley. Next, the Windsor Fire District had its Sphere of Influence significantly expanded to encompass three more districts. At that point, Rincon Valley joined with Bennett Valley, and Mountain Volunteer (part of CSA 40) to reorganize with Windsor (as lead agency) into the Sonoma County Fire District. All properties in the expanded district are now assessed under Windsor's fee schedule (capped at $200 per parcel). The process was not contested at any stage.
There will be several mileposts in the Sonoma Valley reorganization process through the winter and spring, with public hearings at almost every step. We will keep you posted.