Kenwood Fire District scrambles after likely failure of fire tax
Directors looking at increased parcel tax, future moves
“There is no plan B.”
Kenwood Fire Chief Daren Bellach made it clear that Kenwood’s Fire District is on its own at this point – no million dollars a year will be forthcoming from the expansive fire protection funding in the county’s Measure G if it fails, which it is very likely to do.
As of 8 p.m., Wednesday, March 11, the tally was 63.3 percent for and 36.7 percent against, out of 140,000 votes counted, with 39,000 votes yet to be checked, according to Sonoma County Registrar Deva Marie Proto. Getting the 66 percent it needs to win is unlikely, according to knowledgeable election observers.
Bellach and the Kenwood Fire District Directors discussed what to do next at their March 10 monthly meeting.
“We don’t have sustainability right now,” Bellach said later. “How are we going to be what we are today 20 years from now, based on our current income levels? One of the main reasons for going to the reorganization (consolidation) is sustainability of this district, looking out into the future.”
A poll of county voters last November predicted the half-cent, permanent sales tax measure would be close. Several people at Tuesday’s meeting were puzzled at the apparent lack of support for Measure G from county fire agencies and groups concerned about fire fighting in the future.
“I didn’t see a single ‘YES on Measure G’ anywhere,” said KFD attorney Bill Adams, who was at Tuesday’s meeting.
Others wondered at the lack of support from some city fire departments, which may need to renew their own city sales taxes in a few years.
Since pay parity issues stopped Kenwood’s consolidation with Glen Ellen, Valley of the Moon and Mayacamas fire districts into the new Sonoma Valley Fire District, Kenwood’s directors began considering a separate parcel tax increase last month. A motion to go forward with a new parcel tax was left on the table pending Measure G results. Even though those results aren’t final, directors on Tuesday approved moving ahead with a new parcel tax proposal.
Unlike the Sonoma Valley Fire District, Kenwood’s parcel tax will be put to a direct vote of the district residents. (See Consolidation story, page 2.)
Chief Bellach is looking for a consultant to put together the new tax package. An ad hoc director’s subcommittee will work with the consultant and reach out to other districts to devise a detailed parcel tax plan that could be placed on the May 5 Sonoma County Special Election. That ballot already includes two fire district parcel tax measures, which may reduce the average $10 per voter cost for special elections.
“I’m not sure exactly when or what comes after that,” Bellach said. “It depends on what the consultant and working committee find.” If the tax moves quickly, there will be at least one public informational meeting and the directors will have to approve it at another noticed action meeting.
Kenwood’s directors agreed to model new revenue proposals after Glen Ellen’s successful parcel tax increase, passed in 2018. Glen Ellen’s tax structure will be the basis for the new Sonoma Valley Fire District.
If Kenwood gets a tax measure included in the May election and it passes, new money can start rolling in with the December county tax payment. The next window of opportunity is 18 months away, with no new tax money available before 2022, according to Adams.
Kenwood Fire District’s immediate financial stressors are paying employees on par with the rest of the county’s firefighters – currently a $700,000 per year gap between Kenwood and Valley of the Moon firefighters. Low pay makes it hard for Kenwood to recruit firefighters and impossible for it to join with other districts until they achieve pay parity. Another need is to improve Kenwood’s fire station, built in 1965, to add new living space for overnight staffers and expand equipment bays.
“The engine bays need to be taller and longer to facilitate new, bigger equipment,” Bellach said. All required seismic updates were done decades ago, he added.
While the increase being considered – a cap of $150 or $200 per parcel per year – would raise no more than an additional $70,000 a year, the extra money could be leveraged through bonds or borrowing to pay for fire house renovations or pay boosts.
“If a nearby neighbor offered us 10 acres across the street, we could consider that, too,” Bellach told the directors.
Bellach announced the loss of two of the district’s 17 volunteers going forward. New volunteers are always welcome, Bellach said, as well as volunteer support staff to help with events and other routine tasks at the station.
The likely loss of Measure G funds has a ripple effect on other projects, as well. A proposal by PG&E and EcoGreen, a private company, to replace all the station’s lighting with cheaper-to-operate LED fixtures, with PG&E financing the $15,000 costs, would generate a savings of $2,300 a year in electricity bills. KFD would continue paying the higher rate for about six years to repay the loan, and then reap the cost savings.
While attractive, Board Chair Daymon Doss noted that until the timing of the remodel/rebuild is figured out, it might not be worth it. “The work could be done as a part of that, and maybe sooner than the debt is paid off,” he said. The issue was set aside for now.
This process will move quickly to meet the deadlines for the May 5 ballot. Watch for notices of public hearings at the firehouse. We will keep readers updated on our Facebook Page, facebook.com/kenwoodpress.