KFD tables consolidation effort
The issue is money
A fiscal surprise at the Kenwood Fire District’s monthly directors meeting has derailed the deliberation of whether to reorganize with three other districts into a single, larger Sonoma Valley fire district.
Kenwood’s board of directors unanimously agreed to table until March 10 a decision about whether or not to consolidate with Valley of the Moon, Glen Ellen and Mayacamas fire districts, after the results of a 2020 countywide fire tax measure are known. What’s more, those three districts heading for consolidation don’t want Kenwood at this point.
The attempt to meld all of Sonoma Valley’s fire districts is part of a countywide effort to eventually bring all of the 30-plus independent fire districts under a unified administration, beginning with regional consolidations that are expected to eventually merge into a single, countywide agency.
The Sonoma Valley districts are Kenwood, Glen Ellen, Mayacamas (MVFD), Valley of the Moon (VOM), City of Sonoma, and Schell-Vista. So far, only VOM, Glen Ellen and Mayacamas have decided to consolidate. They are each expected to file a resolution to that effect on Dec. 16 with the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), which must consent to the reorganization. The City of Sonoma and Schell-Vista Fire District have both decided not to join at this time for different reasons.
Kenwood was the last district to decide. And the answer is clearly, “not yet.”
The issue is money.
As it stands today, Kenwood Fire District’s budget is showing a deficit of about $79,000 this year; however, it has healthy operating reserves in the bank of about $1,000,000 and a capital fund of $2,500,000. The problem only develops after Kenwood joins the other districts.
Firefighters and employees within a unified district would have to be paid equally. And that would cost Kenwood more money than it can possibly raise for now. The other districts are not going to cover the cost of bringing Kenwood’s five full-time and five part-time paid employees up to parity with their counterparts.
Kenwood’s firefighters are the lowest paid in Sonoma County; their pay is so low that even an injection of $300,000 from the higher parcel tax that consolidation would bring would still leave them $350,000 short of achieving parity. The consolidating districts specifically forbid any new members from bringing in unsustainable liabilities, a condition which only became apparent when the draft resolution to join was presented to Kenwood Fire Chief Daren Bellach on Dec. 6. He spotted the issue in the fine print on Dec. 8, just two days before the scheduled meeting to vote on it.
Section (e) of the seventh “WHEREAS” in the draft resolution states, in part, that all districts must have enough property taxes available to ensure “… that no District or territory brings a financial deficit to a Reorganized District.”
Valley of the Moon Fire District Chief Steve Akre apologized for not recognizing the fiscal problems earlier. “We were focused on the idea of mutual compatibility and achieving consensus. We didn’t look at the fiscal issues in enough detail.” A Municipal Service Review done for all the Sonoma Valley fire districts by LAFCO in September did not reveal the issue.
Bringing Kenwood’s paid firefighters up to parity with their compatriots elsewhere in the expanded district could bring that deficit up to about $700,000. Even with added revenues coming in from using Glen Ellen’s $200 parcel tax, Kenwood would still be $350,000 short. Kenwood’s current $40 per parcel tax brings in $47,000 a year.
For example, Kenwood’s two captains earn from $59,425 to $64,430 year (including benefits) while their two engineers earn from $43,793 to $45,983. Valley of the Moon’s captains earn from $174,318 to $271,427, and their engineer salaries range from $142,649 to $204,672. VOM has 42 paid fire personnel, including the chief. (Kenwood numbers provided by the district; VOM numbers taken from Transparent California’s webpage.)
Rather than turn down the consolidation idea at this point, Kenwood Director Daymon Doss moved to table the issue until after the March 3, 2020, election, when they will know if a half-cent fire tax will be passed. That tax money could alleviate many problems throughout the county, but is far from certain to pass, according to the county’s own polling.
The issue of pay parity is ongoing – it will not disappear regardless of consolidation and tax measures – and the directors are entertaining the idea of a new parcel tax levy of up to $200 a parcel for residential lots located within the Kenwood Fire District.
The directors all agreed with Doss, voting to take it up again at their regularly scheduled monthly meeting on March 10, 2020. Meanwhile, they gain more time to ferret out any other issues lurking about and resolve existing questions over unfunded CALPERS debts (Kenwood is doing better in that regard than other districts).