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News: 12/15/2015

County moves ahead with fire services reorganization

Money will be the main issue in coming years

After wrangling nearly 18 months over possible means of streamlining the county’s multiple fire agencies, the final consensus plan of a 70-person advisory committee was presented to and accepted by the Board of Supervisors last week. While county-level fire agencies clearly prefer a single administrative “governance model,” a compromise system of seven regional advisory boards along with a nine-member county advisory panel was unanimously adopted.

The independent volunteer fire departments who make up County Service Area 40, including the Mayacamas Volunteer Fire Department, initially rejected a regional approach, but they came on board with the understanding that a feasibility study would be undertaken to work out their best moves forward, including whether to become a dependent or independent fire district.

“We are supporting the program going forward,” Mayacamas Fire Chief Will Horne said after the supervisors’ meeting on Dec. 8. Horne is also president of the CSA40 department organization.

The supervisors also approved most of the funding for the reorganization, but will have to come up with several million dollars in the future to realize all the innovations called for in the recommendation. For now, they approved allocating $800,000 immediately (from monies set aside for the fire district reorganization study), to pay for the countywide dispatch system, along with another $300,000 to help defray costs of consolidating fire districts, services and training, and to make sure that current levels of funding for rural districts are not cut.

Factors pushing up the costs of fire services include higher costs to train volunteers (who often jump to paying jobs elsewhere after they are trained), exponentially more expensive fire equipment needed to replace an aging fleet, and providing more emergency medical treatment in addition to traditional fire services. Coupled with the loss of state funds that have been reallocated to schools and redevelopment, fire services funding has reached a critical stage.

The Advisory Committee suggested they could pay for the dispatch system by allocating $800,000 from Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) funds, which have been swelling with added tourism income in the past two years. While those extra funds do not actually exist according to the county administrator’s office, First District Supervisor Susan Gorin noted that a one percent raise in the TOT could return a million dollars a year. The TOT is levied on hotel rooms, vacation rentals, and bed and breakfast rooms. For now, however, the supervisors were reluctant to allocate unrealized income, especially with competing interests also eyeing those funds, including police and county workers looking for pay increases in current collective bargaining efforts.

The total cost for implementing the suggested programs could run as high as $10 million a year. At this point, there isn’t much more than $4.5 million available, but there is enough on hand to get reforms underway, including funding the new regional boards, establishing a nine-person county Advisory Board with one member from each region and two appointed by the supervisors, and money to seed a feasibility study for dependent volunteer departments to participate in the countywide programs, and other items.

Possible sources of future revenue will be considered in January or February with the mid-year budget review.


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