Sales tax for fire safety faces uphill battle
Tax would fund additional firefighters, equipment, fire house upgrades, and more
Like many public service agencies throughout the state of California, Sonoma County’s fragmented fire fighting system has been in financial trouble for years. The Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) suggested after a thorough review in 2004 that consolidating the county’s multiple independent firefighting and emergency agencies is the only answer that will be workable in the long run.
Given the fiercely independent nature of volunteer fire companies, it has been an uphill struggle for each to find funding through parcel taxes, grants, crab feeds, barbecues and pancake breakfasts. Consolidations have been slow in coming, but several have been made in the past few years, though an attempt to merge five Sonoma Valley departments came short last fall as Kenwood Fire District, Schellville FD, and the City of Sonoma opted out for different reasons.
The Sonoma County Wildfire Prevention, Emergency Alert and Response Transactions and Use Tax Ordinance – designated Measure G on the March 3 ballot – will impose a half-cent sales tax throughout the county for an indefinite period of time.
Ninety percent of the taxes would go to the various fire districts and 10 percent to the county.
The allocation plan included in the measure will add 200 paid firefighters and emergency techs to bring all county fire departments’ emergency vehicles up to the recommended three-person staffing every time a unit is dispatched. Measure G money – estimated at $51 million a year – would fund new fire stations, repair older ones, and pay for fire prevention and vegetation management.
A sore point with some fire districts was the initial addition of language that would penalize districts if they drag their feet to avoid consolidation. The original restrictions were ameliorated to require districts to show “progress” and make efforts toward consolidation, with no expectations of penalties for at least a few years.
Kenwood Fire District (KFD) did not consolidate with Glen Ellen, Valley of the Moon and Mayacamas districts last year because they have a $700,000 deficit in the payroll department to bring their staffing up to par with the other agencies involved. Merging fire districts must be on equal financial footing. Measure G could solve that problem.
While fire chiefs and district directors are unsure about providing political support for the measure, most of them are supportive and have expressed their private opinions when asked.
“Personally, I’m for it,” Kenwood Fire Chief Daren Bellach said. “It’s going to give fire departments throughout the county $51 million a year. There is the potential for us to do the reorganization with Sonoma Valley once we are out of the negative $700,000 (deficient staffing costs).”
Kenwood’s paid firefighters are the lowest paid in the county and the district must achieve parity before merging with any other districts.
KFD Director Daymon Doss is another supporter, speaking personally. As a veteran of special district oversight for many years in Northern California, mostly hospital and medical districts, he has a broad perspective on special district needs.
“It’s time to have a county-wide plan, and I think the use of a county-wide sales tax is a more efficient way to do it rather than a series of parcel tax assessments for each district. There are three specific areas of focus for Kenwood if it is passed, and all three are greatly needed for our continued performance and growth.”
Long time Glen Ellen fireman, retired fire chief and current board member Peter Van Fleet is a backer of Measure G.
“That level of coverage will mean improvements to service throughout the county. I personally support the measure because I believe that it will allow Kenwood Fire District to participate in the ongoing reorganization. The voters will decide if they can tolerate yet more taxes.”
Measure G’s Expenditure Plan precisely defines the amount of tax to be allocated to each of 38 fire agencies in the county.
Kenwood FD would receive just over one million dollars from the first distribution: $188,700 to add a bedroom to the fire station and do some remediation; $142,800 for personnel, and $708,900 for vegetation management, alert systems, and other uses. This might allow Kenwood to join with the new Sonoma Valley Fire District (SVFD) and automatically update Kenwood’s fire assessment from $49 per residential parcel to whatever the SVFD is charging, up to $200 per parcel per year.
Since the Valley of the Moon consolidation is not yet complete, Mayacamas VFD stands to receive $158,100; Glen Ellen would receive a total of $576,300, and Valley of the Moon FD is in line for $1.6 million.
Overall, Measure G returns would be allocated 80 percent for alerts, warnings and sirens, vegetation management and wildfire prevention, and preparedness; 5.5 percent for recruitment and retention of firefighters; 1.25 percent to incentivize consolidation and address other fire response and prevention needs; and 13.25 percent for equipment and facilities.
A major bonus would be the addition of better trained emergency personnel on most calls. While the numbers fluctuate depending on season and the economy, up to 80 percent or more of fire calls are for some form of medical emergency. Structure fires or wildfires constitute less than 10 percent of the calls, the rest falling into several ‘other’ categories.
While there has been little opposition to Measure G – no formal opposition was filed – not everybody is pleased with it. A poll commissioned by the county last year, before the Kincade fire, showed just barely the two thirds support required to pass the measure. After enacting Measure M in 2004, a broad spectrum tax that supports rail, bus, bicycle, pedestrian transportation, and cars, voters turned down two measures that required only 50 percent plus one vote. First District Supervisor Susan Gorin – an ardent supporter – is working with a county committee to renew Measure M before it sunsets in 2024.
A single citizen provided the only opposition statement on record. Michael A. Hilber finds a half-cent tax too expensive and would prefer a quarter-cent tax if any tax must be had. He calls for further review of the expenditure plan and also feels that a stated goal of Measure G – to bring volunteer companies up to par with paid companies – is not well served with the bulk of the receipts going to stations staffed by union employees.
The new rate would go into effect on Oct. 1, and revenues would start coming to the county by December.
Full text of Measure G is available on the Registrar of Voters website, sonomacounty.ca.gov/CRA/Registrar-of-Voters/.