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News: 11/15/2019

County fire funding to hit the March 2020 ballot

Still reeling after a two-year run of natural disasters, both fires and floods, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors have decided to ask voters to approve a sales tax to increase funding for fire and emergency response services across the county.

On Nov. 5, convening the week after the Kincade Fire burned over 77,000 acres in 13 days and threatened the cities of Windsor and Healdsburg, county supervisors approved 5-0 a measure seeking a half-cent sales tax increase to be placed on the March 2020 ballot. The measure will generate approximately $51 million annually, which will be distributed across the county’s more than 30 fire districts, with the aim of improving alert, warning, and siren systems; vegetation management inspection and mitigation programs; replacement of aging infrastructure and equipment; and the recruitment and retention of firefighters.

Although the conversation to improve the operation and efficiency of the county’s firefighting and emergency services began long before the conflagrations of 2017, those North Bay fires underscored the urgency of the situation. Those fires, at that point the largest in Sonoma County’s history, stretched existing firefighting personnel and resources to the breaking point and revealed weaknesses in the county’s emergency alert system. In total, 44 people died.

In contrast, the battle with the Kincade Fire this October, which resulted in no civilian deaths or injuries, has been largely deemed successful by county and fire officials and the pre-emptive and coordinated evacuation of 50,000 residents from Windsor, Healdsburg and most of West County demonstrated just how much progress has been made on the county’s emergency alert system in two years. However, another large-scale disaster in such a short interval showed that much more work is needed, without the luxury of time on the county’s side.

“[The Kincade Fire] was a hard-hit reminder that 2017 wasn’t a one-off,” said Sonoma Valley Fire and Rescue Authority (SVFRA) Fire Chief Steve Akre. “It reminded us that we live in an era of wildfires and we have to push hard to improve our services and our ability to not only fight these fires, but limit how big they get.”

“We need more firefighters,” Mark Heine, Sonoma County Fire District Fire Chief, told the supervisors. Heine pointed out that there are about 375 firefighters in Sonoma County, but it took a force of about 4,000 firefighters, some coming from as far away as Washington and Arizona, via statewide mutual aid agreements, to stall the Kincade Fire.

SVFRA (which includes the Glen Ellen Fire Department), the Kenwood Fire Department, the Sonoma Developmental Center station, and Schell-Vista sent a total of 14 engines to aid during the Kincade Fire. To put that in perspective, normal daily staffing for all of Sonoma Valley is only seven engines. The City of Windsor, with a population of 33,000, only has six firefighters on duty.

“We shouldn’t have to rely on that. We should have a fire fighting force day in and day out here without the reliance on a statewide mutual aid system,” said Heine. He also pointed out that timing was on their side; the number of firefighters available to help during the Kincade Fire was only possible because there was no other major fire going on in the state at the same time; there was no competition for resources. In October 2017, the county was besieged not by one fire, but by 250 individual fires, 21 of which became major.

The new sales tax would provide funding to hire 200 additional full-time personnel across the county, including firefighters and battalion chiefs. The increase in firefighters is a top priority as districts aim for three-person staffing on engines, which is closer to the national standard of four people. “The difference between one- to two-person staffing and three-person staffing is the safety of the responding fire fighters,” said Heine.

In addition, the tax will provide the funding for the installment of seven new fire inspectors to carry out a more robust vegetation management program throughout the county. Local fire agencies will also receive an influx of funding so their staff can provide vegetation inspection and remediation in their jurisdictions. Additionally, the sales tax will fund a 10- to 12-person regional “fuels crew” to perform vegetation management, reinforce evacuation routes, and construct fuel breaks throughout the county. The home location of the regional crew has not yet been decided.

The resulting funding from the measure will be divided by percentage, based on district size and need. Fire districts that have specific challenges recruiting and retaining full-time firefighters will receive additional funding to help those efforts. The Kenwood Fire District is one of those and stands to receive $143,000 annually for recruitment and retention if the measure passes.

“It’s a new, different awareness and we need to have a different ability to respond to the fires like we’ve seen these two years,” said First District Supervisor Susan Gorin, who is still in the process of rebuilding her house in Oakmont, which was burned during the 2017 Nuns Fire.

A portion of monies raised will go to the county’s Department of Emergency Management to improve the county’s alert and warning systems, not just for wildfire, but any natural disaster including earthquake, tsunami and flood. Funds will be dedicated to improving digital technologies like the Wireless Emergency Alert system, SoCo Alert, and Nixle notifications, and to construct, operate and maintain a network of emergency sirens. This cracks the door open for the communities of Oakmont and Kenwood who have been pushing hard for the installation of emergency sirens for two years. “There will be some physical sirens in communities that want them and where the studies show they will be effective,” said Tim Aboudara, president of the Santa Rosa Fire Fighters Union. The department will also continue with expansion of its hi-low sirens, which were installed on Sonoma County Sheriff patrol cars in 2018, and used to great effect during the Kincade Fire evacuations.

If the ballot measure passes this spring, Kenwood Fire District will receive approximately $709,000 annually to dedicate toward alert and warning and vegetation management expenditures, including hiring or training staff to administer such programs. Mayacamas Volunteer Fire Department would receive approximately $158,000 and Glen Ellen Fire Department would receive $388,000. For equipment upgrades and station retrofitting, Kenwood and Glen Ellen would each receive $189,000 a year.

Overall, the measure would raise funds to build nine new fire stations throughout the county, move the location of eight existing fire stations, and retrofit or remodel another eight existing fire stations.

The measure must be approved by two-thirds of voters to pass. Initial polling released in early October showed the public may be reluctant to support additional taxes for fire protection, especially since the measure will be sharing the ballot with several other taxation measures this spring – the renewal of Measure M for transportation upgrades, the sales tax extension to benefit the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART), and a sales tax increase to benefit the county’s mental health funding.

The county’s combined sales tax rate is currently 8.25 percent and the new measure could put some jurisdictions’ sales tax rates higher than the state-allowed cap of 9.25 percent, although the county has already received an exemption from the governor.

“This is going to take work, you’re going to have to be going into your communities,” said Ruth Bernstein, referring to the necessity of fire fighters in uniform knocking on doors and campaigning for the measure. Bernstein is president of the polling company EMC.

Additionally, three new parcel tax increases were approved for three West County fire districts earlier this month. However, individual fire district parcel taxes are seen by the county as complimentary to the proposed sales tax – a drop in the bucket for departments that have been largely underfunded for many years. “Even if every fire jurisdiction went out successfully and did a property tax-style adjustment, we would probably still need some version of the sales tax,” said Aboudara.

These jurisdictional boundaries may also be going away soon. One and one-quarter of the proposed sales tax will provide funding to incentivize fire district consolidation, a move Kenwood, Glen Ellen, Mayacamas and Schell-Vista are currently studying (see story here). As long as a district is “working toward consolidation,” it will receive funding – although that can be modified after three years.

Aboudara said the sales tax is designed to lift all boats. “The underlying theme of this sales tax and the programs it will deliver is to make it easier for agencies to come together,” he said. The county’s 30-plus individual fire agencies have big disparities between how they are organized, governed, funded, staffed and equipped. “Those become the stumbling blocks when two agencies want to come together.

“No single agency stands alone. If we continue to look at single-agency approaches to funding and growing the fire service, we will continue the same pattern we are in which is we are providing a good level of fire protection now, but it’s not growing and we’re not able to adapt to the changing threats and changing populous in our county.”

“Fire knows no jurisdictional boundaries,” said Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, on Oct. 22, the day before the Kincade Fire broke out. “We are in an era of catastrophic wildfires and need to prepare accordingly.”

Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.

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