By JEREMY HAY & RANDI ROSSMANN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Talks are under way about how three fire agencies should divide a one-time $1.5 million payment that the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria is giving to Sonoma County to address impacts from the casino being built outside Rohnert Park.
That issue’s resolution likely will define how Central Fire, the Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District and Rohnert Park’s public safety department will split an additional $1 million that the tribe is to pay for fire protection services each year for the next 20.
“The approach has been, ‘How can we build a system that benefits everybody,’” said Doug Williams, chief of Central Fire, which includes the Rincon Valley and Windsor departments.
He said his preference would be to integrate the responses more between the three agencies.
The money for fire services is being funneled to the agencies through the county, which in October reached agreement with the Graton Rancheria on a 20-year revenue-sharing deal. Under that deal, the tribe is paying the county at least $9 million a year to offset impacts from the 3,000-slot machine casino it plans to open this year.
Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt, whose 2nd District encompasses the casino, said it is essentially up to the fire agencies to arrive at the right formula.
“I don’t think we want to micro-manage where it goes, other than to make sure that the additional workload is going to have a dollar amount assigned to it that’s going to be sufficient for all of them to provide the services required,” Rabbitt said.
Williams is leading the discussion between the agencies because the casino, now rising on 66 acres along Wilfred Avenue, is within the Rincon Valley department’s jurisdiction.
He has suggested that for casino-related calls, a computerized program could be set up to dispatch the agency with the closest fire engine at the time — instead of always making Rincon Valley the first responsible for the call.
The negotiations take place against the backdrop of a $251 million revenue-sharing deal reached last week between the tribe and Rohnert Park. The deal amended a 2003 agreement and spells out that the tribe is to pay for a new Rohnert Park fire station and ladder truck, as well as $7.36 million a year that can be used for services including public safety.
“That changes the dynamic (of the discussion about the money the departments are to divide) a little,” Rabbitt said, “but at the end of the day it should still follow the same format: Whoever gets those calls and whoever is impacted needs to be made sure they are made whole.”
Rancho Adobe Chief Frank Treanor said the Rohnert Park deal — which the City Council approved this week — should mean the other two agencies should get the money the tribe is paying to the county for fire services.
Rancho Adobe since November has closed one of its three stations on a rotating basis to cope with a budget deficit, and Treanor said he needs more firefighting personnel.
“I’d be perfectly happy if Rohnert Park just used that money (in the city’s agreement with the tribe) to upstaff the firehouses that they already have and to staff their new firehouse,” Treanor said, “and left the $1 million and possibly a little bit of extra money to Rincon and to Rancho for upstaffing.”
But Rohnert Park City Manager Gabe Gonzalez said the money his city is getting must go towards address a variety of impacts, including on public safety but also on traffic, roads and on social concerns.
“Keep in mind this is all the money we’re going to receive for mitigating public impacts,” he said.
The talks also are going forward in the context of criticisms that Rohnert Park’s fire division is under-trained and struggles to pull its weight.
Those concerns have been expressed privately for several years. But as part of a Press Democrat report about Rohnert Park’s fire division, they were aired publicly this month by firefighters and officials from neighboring departments that assist the city on fire calls under mutual aid agreements.
Following that report — in which Williams and other chiefs said they send battalion chiefs to Rohnert Park incidents to ensure their firefighters’ safety — Gonzalez suggested that the complaints were being made by cash-strapped departments as part of an effort to tap into payments from the tribe to the city.
“I look at the timing of these issue being raised — why now?” Gonzalez said this week. “It was known we were in discussion with the tribes about mitigating these impacts. Why single us out?”
That’s not the case, said Treanor and Santa Rosa Fire Chief Mark McCormick, who has also expressed concerns about how Rohnert Park’s public safety department — whose officers are trained to serve as both firefighters and police officers — manages its firefighting effort.
“The funding issue is a separate issue, totally separate” from the concerns that were raised, McCormick said this week.
“We haven’t asked for any money, we haven’t been involved in the negotiations,” he said.
Santa Rosa is not among the departments which the county’s agreement with the tribe says will divide the annual payment.
Treanor said he spoke to Gonzalez after the news report and said, “I didn’t say anything I didn’t say to you two years ago.”
Still, talks continue.
“We will be sitting down and talking with the other agencies that are mentioned in the county MOU in terms of the best way to service and respond on calls to the casino,” Gonzalez said. “I imagine if the city is going to be responding as part of that support group, we would say, ‘Yes, how does that work for all of us who are involved?’”
Whatever tensions may have arisen, the goals are ultimately the same, Treanor said.
“The big thing is to get enough people on the street that when an incident happens people are safe,” he said.
(You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)