Fire district consolidation pondered
The convoluted process of herding Sonoma Valley’s multiple fire districts and emergency responders into a regional organism continues, with some trepidation among some of the districts’ directors and volunteer firefighters. On Nov. 6, the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) – a quasi independent county body charged with overseeing special districts – passed by a vote of 5-2 a resolution that expanded the Glen Ellen Fire District “Sphere of Influence” to cover all the existing Sonoma Valley districts: Kenwood, Glen Ellen, Mayacamas, Valley of the Moon, Schell-Vista, and the City of Sonoma. The action allows whatever larger group emerges from the consolidation process to use Glen Ellen’s parcel tax rate (a maximum of $200 per parcel per year) for all participating districts.
The split LAFCO vote reflected concern that some fire districts need more time to absorb and study the impacts. Schell-Vista Fire District’s board voted unanimously to not participate in consolidation this year, having passed a $200 parcel tax limit last year, and expecting over $1.6 million in revenues for 2019-2020. “We just convinced our voters to pass this tax and don’t want to go back to them with another complicated process so soon,” Schell-Vista FD Board Member Bob Kruljak told the LAFCO members. LAFCO Chairman Ernie Loveless is also a member of the Schell-Vista board, but felt able to vote on the issue. He voted for it in order to allow the other Sonoma Valley agencies to move ahead.
While the City of Sonoma, which has it’s own fire district, will not join with others this year, that is mainly because city staff have been fully occupied with General Plan revisions, Urban Growth Boundary renewal and other matters to effectively update the City Council.(1)
How will consolidation effect Kenwood Fire?
The very idea of submerging a local fire district into a larger organization is difficult, especially for people who have served as volunteers and/or directors for the better part of a lifetime.
“There is no ‘we’,” Director Daymon Doss responded to a question from the audience at the Kenwood Fire District’s regular Nov. 12 board meeting. “Once we do this, this board disappears. The new organization takes on the risks and assets.” Valley of the Moon/Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority Fire Chief Steve Akre has reassured the board that individual districts will be able to keep their designations and identity on apparatus, even though administration and operational control shifts to the larger organization.
Once a district decides to move forward with reorganization, it has to make a formal application to LAFCO, at which point a clock starts ticking. Since some districts’ special assessments might go up, property owners will have a chance to express their feelings about it. Postcards will be sent to every property owner in the district, and if 25 percent of them object, the matter will be dropped or put to a vote.
While a fire district can take its time deciding if or when it will join in the consolidation process, there are pressing reasons to get on board with the initial reorganization. An application to join must be made by Dec. 16 in order for adjusted assessments to be added to the 2020-2021 tax bills.
“Do we want to be part of forming this new thing, or do we join in only after the rules have been set up by others?” Fire Chief Daren Bellach asked the Kenwood Board. He feels that consolidation is the future of all the county’s districts and urges tackling the issues now. Directors, however, have questions about the details of consolidation.
“What about PERS contributions?” Doss asked early in the meeting. An experienced healthcare district executive, he wanted to know more about the district’s unfunded liabilities. The California Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) has been in deep trouble since losing a staggering amount of assets in the 2008-2010 recession. As districts take on more employees who work longer, unfunded liabilities increase.
Kenwood FD does not set aside specific amounts toward the unfunded liability issue, but pays roughly $80,000 a year into the system, some portion of which goes to that future debt. Other districts may have differing percentages of unfunded liabilities, “but we just don’t know,” Doss said.
Kenwood’s directors are exploring the possibilities: join in the current consolidation effort by Dec. 16 and reap increased assessments next year, or put their own version of a maximum $200-per-parcel assessment to a vote sometime next year (currently, Kenwood District residents pay $40 per parcel per year). The district’s attorney, Bill Adams, said it was problematic whether an independent tax assessment could be accomplished in time to make the 2020-2021 tax rolls. The process is difficult, time consuming, and expensive, costing up to $30,000 and more, even for a mail-in ballot. He was clear that trying to put such a measure on the March 3 ballot next year was “out of the question.” The window for filing for that election closes on Dec. 6.
Kenwood’s Board of Directors have scheduled a public meeting for Dec. 3, 4 p.m. at the Kenwood Firehouse to discuss options further.
A special meeting of all the Sonoma Valley fire district boards set for October was cancelled because of the Kincade Fire. It has been tentatively rescheduled for Nov. 21, at a time and place yet to be decided. At least some of the issues confronting these boards may be sorted out then.
The new reality of fire department staffing
While fire districts everywhere have almost always come to each other’s aid when needed, the growing population, sheer number of structures, property prices, and increasing climate hazards have prompted districts to look for cost savings wherever they can.
High home prices in Sonoma County make it difficult for younger people to move in, drastically curtailing the pool of young, healthy volunteers who live nearby and have time for the extensive training now required of all fire and emergency responders, volunteer or otherwise. Some districts have adequate rosters of volunteers, but the numbers fluctuate and they can’t always count on their availability.
The Valley of the Moon Fire District contracted with the City of Sonoma several years ago to provide fire protection services. Sonoma provides emergency vehicles and staff. The combined agency is called the Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority (SVFRA), headed by Chief Akre. Glen Ellen’s Fire District contracted with SVFRA two years ago to provide all its administration and operational oversight.
Sales tax to the rescue?
While reorganization will result in some savings for administration and equipment acquisition, as well as increased property taxes from some districts, those increases in revenue and cost savings are nowhere near enough to cover what the county has determined is needed for effective fire prevention and improved emergency services going forward.
After two years of study by just about every emergency agency in the county, the supervisors are banking on voters supporting a half-cent sales tax measure scheduled for the March 3, 2020, ballot. While a consultant’s poll found a slim margin of support for the measure, considering that a separate sales-tax increase measure for Sonoma and Marin rail service will also be on the ballot, supervisors are confident that the voters have been sufficiently educated by the fires of 2017 and 2019 to support solid funding for the county’s fire services. The tax measure requires a two-thirds majority to pass.
However, some of Kenwood’s district directors expressed concern over the mutable language of the draft expenditure plan included with the sales tax measure, language pertaining to possible penalties for districts which do not show a serious commitment to consolidation. The language is vague, and intended to be the stick behind the carrot of anticipated sales tax revenues, which could run as high as $51 million a year. As currently written, the Board of Supervisors, working with LAFCO, will take a hard look at what’s happening in three years and can then decide to withhold tax largesse by setting aside the portion due in a holding account until progress toward consolidation is seen. The language of that section has changed several times, so it is not clear yet what the penalties might be for not joining the consolidation effort.
(See sales tax story for more information about this measure.)
(1)Information in the printed version of this story was incorrect. The City Council of Sonoma will make no decisions regarding consolidation until they have examined the subject. The Valley of the Moon Fire Protection District has administered the City of Sonoma's fire protection under a Joint Powers agreement with the City which remains in place; the two entities comprise the Sonoma Valley Fire and Rescue Authority.