Fire consolidation moves along; Kenwood undecided
Dec. 16 looms as a significant date in the process of consolidating Sonoma Valley’s five separate rural fire districts, plus the City of Sonoma. That’s the final day that the current reorganization process will allow districts to take advantage of increasing their property taxes on the 2019-2020 tax rolls without having to put it to a vote. The consolidation process has been discussed for a number of years, but has been significantly energized by the enormous wildfires in the county in 2017 and this year.
According to Valley of the Moon Fire Chief Steve Akre, Glen Ellen, Valley of the Moon, and the County of Sonoma (as board of directors for the CS40 Fire District, of which Mayacamas Volunteer Fire Department is part), are expected to formally begin the consolidation process by Dec. 16. Kenwood Fire District may join in, but that is not certain until their board holds a community meeting on Dec. 3, and deliberates making a formal resolution at its regular meeting on Dec. 10.
Noting that Valley of the Moon’s board has had long experience with consolidation efforts, having collaborated with the City of Sonoma to form the Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority in 2002 under a Joint Powers Agreement, and that Glen Ellen’s board has been working with Valley of the Moon for the past three years, Akre understands how much time is needed to become comfortable with consolidation.
“It’s important that a board get to a comfortable place,” Akre said. “And I appreciate how thoughtful and thorough the Kenwood board is being about the process.”
While missing the Dec. 16 deadline in no way derails the reorganization process, it does keep non-joining fire districts from applying a higher tax rate next year. The process allowed by the Local Agency Formation Committee (LAFCO) that governs special districts permits a consolidated group of districts to use the highest assessment among the participating districts. In this case, Glen Ellen has the highest assessment of up to $200 per year.
The immense Kincade wildfire forced the cancellation of an Oct. 28 “all-hands” meeting of Kenwood, Glen Ellen, Valley of the Moon, Mayacamas and Schell-Vista fire district boards and chiefs. An attempt was made to reschedule it before Dec. 16.
“We are not going to be able to have the Joint Meeting on [Nov. 26] as hoped for,” Akre said. “We will not have a quorum, which is a majority of each board present. It is necessary to have a quorum in order to make any decisions or take action as a board.
“The intention of the meeting was to have a discussion and decision on a concurrent resolution which would detail the new district, its board makeup and name, and at the same time dissolve the old districts. This was going to be a real decision point for who was all in for the [reorganization] application. I’m not sure when and how we are going to proceed now. I will be conferring with legal counsel on this and be sure to let you know where we go next.”
Meanwhile, the Kenwood Fire District’s Board of Directors is exploring all options, including asking voters to approve a parcel tax increase. Kenwood Fire District currently collects about $45,000 a year from its levy of $40 per residence and $150-$200 for commercial properties. The directors could raise the top limit for all to $200, as Glen Ellen voters did two years ago. Valley of the Moon voters narrowly defeated a similar measure last year (by eight votes).
In theory, one of the advantages of meeting the Dec. 16 consolidation date would be that all joining districts could immediately apply Glen Ellen’s higher rates, although each district would have to send out a postcard asking property owners for approval. If 25 percent of the property owners reject the increase, then the district would have to go to the voters, which, of course, includes everyone, not just property owners.
Under the consolidation system, the new larger district would have a new name while inheriting the Glen Ellen district’s tax rates. Those rates would be evaluated and set every year.
A public meeting has been set for 6:30 p.m., Dec. 3, at the Kenwood Firehouse, to discuss both Kenwood’s parcel tax rate and the potential consolidation.
Sonoma County voters are also being asked to support a half-cent sales tax on the March primary next year, money that would be earmarked for specific fire and emergency improvements such as hiring more professional firefighters and paramedics, new fire stations, and renovations to existing buildings.
Provisions of the sales tax measure state that money raised will not replace operational funds raised through property assessments or be used for operational budgets, and that districts must be “actively pursuing” consolidation efforts to qualify for tax proceeds.
LAFCO Executive Director Mark Bramfitt, Steve Akre and Kenwood Chief Daren Bellach will make presentations at the Dec. 3 meeting in Kenwood, and will answer questions people might have about this complex process, according to director Daymon Doss.
Kenwood Fire Department directors will convene again on Dec. 10 at 4 p.m., their regular monthly meeting, to decide whether to join in the consolidation effort. All they need to do is pass a resolution to that effect to join with Valley of the Moon, Glen Ellen and Mayacamas in the current application.
The Kenwood Fire District was formed as an all-volunteer company in 1946 and operated with three directors until last year, when two new slots were created, in part to help with the reorganization issues now before it.
The district currently has four full-time paid firefighters, eight part-time paid firefighters, and 17 volunteers (five full-time and six part-time) who are paid stipends on a per-shift basis. While the district can provide Basic Life Support, there are no paramedics able to provide Advance Life Support services. One of the primary benefits of the proposed sales tax would be to ensure every call includes a paramedic, in view of the fact that the overwhelming majority of service calls involve medical emergencies, not fire fighting.