By RANDI ROSSMANN & BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Part 1: Future hazy for Sonoma County’s firefighters
Sonoma County’s complex rural firefighting network, much the same for decades, appears to be on the cusp of dramatic change, starting with efforts by three northern agencies that are considering merging into one sprawling district.
Fire and government officials are keenly watching the process involving departments in Geyserville, Cloverdale and Healdsburg, plus Knights Valley volunteers. Their consolidation would create a fire district covering about a third of Sonoma County, including the tax-lucrative Geysers geothermal fields.
Supporters of consolidation say it could enhance fire services and foreshadow a new model for rural fire protection in the county. It ultimately could reshape volunteer companies at the heart of many small communities, but government officials pledge it won’t leave those areas unprotected.
Sonoma County’s existing patchwork of fire services is fraying at the seams. The complex network includes the county’s 15 volunteer fire companies, protecting more than 15,000 people in the least populated areas, plus 19 independent fire districts and five city departments. The system faces competition for meager funding, operational inefficiencies and jockeying by some agencies anxious to protect their turf.
For some of those reasons, the north county move is welcomed by a number of local fire service veterans.
“I think we need to quit fooling ourselves and realize the wave of the future is bigger instead of smaller,” said longtime Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman, a proponent of consolidation whose district absorbed Jenner firefighters years ago. “We’re all afraid of giving up control, giving up our chiefs’ jobs. It’s great to have that hometown feeling … but we have to get realistic.”
A north county consolidation, plus moves considered by other fire entities around the county, could eliminate a handful of jobs and exacerbate what is already a chronic funding struggle for many rural fire departments.
At stake is property-tax revenue that represents more than two-thirds of the $3.3 million operating budget that supports the county’s 15 volunteer fire companies.
“There are a lot of points of view and thoughts on how what we’re doing could be a game-changer,” said Marshall Turbeville, chief of the Geyserville Fire Protection District.
The Board of Supervisors has said it wants to take a hard look at how Sonoma County provides fire services. But the board could be forced to more quickly consider a significant overhaul if even a partial redistribution of that tax money occurs.
The issue has prompted a flurry of meetings and closed-door conversations in recent months, with volunteer chiefs especially concerned about the lasting impact on their companies, overseen by the Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services Department.
Lakeville Volunteer Fire Chief Nick Silva said a funding shift that disadvantages volunteer county companies means many “would probably cease to exist.”
“We wouldn’t be able to support ourselves” without additional money from the county, Silva said.
The rumbling of change comes at a critical time for rural fire services, often the front line of local government for small, far-flung communities.
In addition to the funding and operational woes, demographic changes have thinned the ranks of volunteers — the historic heart and soul of the small departments — as rural areas draw aging residents or commuters unable to fill roles that demand significant training and time.
“It’s that neighbor- helping-neighbor commitment that makes fire protection in the county work,” said Mark Aston, the recently retired county fire chief. “That’s all wonderful and good. However, it starts to bring up questions of economy of scale, effectiveness and efficiencies. They’re making a penny stretch into a dime, so efficiencies are already there. But there also are inefficiencies.”
Supervisor Mike McGuire, who represents the north county, said any immediate changes will evolve over the next one to two years. Any funding shifts would be subject to negotiation, he stressed.
Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt said all options were on the table but that no outcome should harm fire service for any particular area. “We can’t have any holes in the county that aren’t being served,” he said.
Still, McGuire admitted the north county’s talks have caused a countywide ripple. He likened the north county’s role in the process to a canary in the coal mine.
“I think it is time the county has a sincere discussion about the future of fire services,” he said. “That means there are going to be some uncomfortable conversations.”
Among a range of possible outcomes, some volunteer companies could be absorbed by larger neighbors in the short term. Over a longer period, the mergers could be broadened to form a smaller number of regional departments.
The county could decide to get out of firefighting altogether, or, perhaps years down the road, take the opposite, ambitious step of calling for one large county department.
One immediate challenge is that rural areas tend to have deep connections with their fire stations. In the same way that communities hold on tightly to their small school districts, giving up those firefighting identities can ruffle residents as well as firefighters.
“Every volunteer department has a lot of pride in their individual company,” said Matt Epstein, the new chief of the Valley Ford volunteers. “All of us want to provide a better service for our community, and if that means consolidation, I’d be for it. I don’t know if the county can afford that right now.”
Several of the county’s fire chiefs and county officials see at least some levels of fire department consolidation as overdue and inevitable.
“We just can’t keep going as usual. We have to make some economic decisions,” said Ray Mulas, chief of Schell-Vista Fire Protection District, in the southeastern corner of the county.
“Over here, our talk is eventually we’re all going to be one department,” Mulas said, referring to the five firefighting agencies throughout the greater Sonoma Valley.
Mergers are complicated because they can involve reconciling different levels of tax funding for neighboring fire services. But Baxman, the Monte Rio chief, a longtime advocate of joining forces, said he sees it as the only way forward, citing districts’ struggles with money, increased calls and fewer volunteers.
Not everybody sees the need for change.
Some of the county’s volunteer fire chiefs defend their companies’ abilities and extensive unpaid service to their communities, while praising the county’s current efforts to bolster its volunteer network. With additional support, they say, they can provide even better service to rural residents.
“I’m pretty happy with the way things are,” said longtime Bodega volunteer Chief Ron Albini, who recently oversaw construction of a new station for his company. “They need to support the volunteer fire companies and make sure we remain as viable as possible.”
In the south county, Lakeville Chief Silva said he and neighboring volunteer companies, including San Antonio, already work closely together, making it unnecessary to merge.
“We’re doing a lot for what we have and what the community as a whole is willing to pay for,” Silva said. Lakeville, which covers 34 square miles, is next in line for a new fire station paid for by county funds.
Supervisor Efren Carrillo said the volunteer fire companies are “essential to public safety” and “cost-effective.”
Their shared struggles don’t appear to have one single solution that would settle all questions about the future of county fire services, said Carrillo, who represents a west county region with six volunteer companies.
“What that (service) looks like, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m hopeful that successes we see in the short term will help drive what the system looks like in the long term.”
Some, including Baxman, have raised the option of forming a single countywide agency. Others, citing duplication of services and layers of management, have said the county should consider getting out of the firefighting business and instead help the volunteer companies merge with fire districts.
“They are a fire company without a firetruck,” said a longtime local fire official who asked to withhold his name to speak candidly on a sensitive topic. He cited a half-dozen fire management positions in the central county fire office that aren’t front-line responders. “The reality is they aren’t performing any of those public safety responsibilities,” the official said.
Others, including officials inside the department, reject those claims, saying their managerial oversight and leadership at the scene of fires are valuable parts of the current county fire services model. The 15 companies, they say, are the county’s fire department.
“Sonoma County is doing it right,” said Roberta MacIntyre, the assistant county fire chief.
Rabbitt, whose district has six volunteer companies, dismissed the possibility of wholesale changes happening anytime soon. But he acknowledged the many moving parts could force a decision about fire service countywide.
“Things are evolving, and we’ve been having to pick up the pieces,” Rabbitt said. “It is pivotal, but at the same time, I don’t think you’ll find the board going in a direction that’s not going to be accepted by all.”
Changes percolating in other county corners, adding to the sense of a pending overhaul, include:
• Along the southeastern county border, Schell-Vista fire officials are considering annexations, including Sonoma Raceway, now within the jurisdiction of Lakeville volunteers. The additional areas Schell-Vista is eyeing generate about $44,000 in gross tax revenue, more than half of it from the raceway. Net tax figures for the area — after a state shift for educational funding — were not available.
• To the far northwest, volunteer fire officials at The Sea Ranch are considering formation of their own fire district, possibly encompassing a large swath of the northern coast of the Annapolis volunteer company. Sea Ranch currently generates more than $1 million in net tax revenue for county fire services. About 70 percent of that money stays with the community to pay for its ongoing contract with Cal Fire for around-the-clock coverage. The remainder goes to the shared budget for county volunteer companies.
A new district could stake a claim to the entirety of the Sea Ranch tax revenue for fire services.
“We don’t have any political agenda or bad feelings toward (the county),” said Mike Scott, chief of the Sea Ranch volunteers. “We just want to make sure we’re providing the best services we can for the money Sea Ranch is paying.”
• The Sonoma County department itself is in the midst of a turnover at the top, with a new chief brought on last month from outside the area.
“I’m not here to mess up anything that’s going right,” said Al Terrell, the incoming chief.
But Terrell supports regional consolidations where they can eliminate service duplications in a concentrated area.
“The reality is, in certain areas, depending on the needs of the community, consolidation has to be a consideration,” he said.
The north county consolidation would take in areas — including The Geysers — that generate more than $1 million in net tax revenue for county fire service.
All together, the amount of money at stake from the various possible financial changes rises to two-thirds of the county’s annual $3.3 million firefighting budget.
“If these consolidations happen and this money goes away, it’s a problem for county fire. But county fire already has a problem of being underfunded,” said Epstein, Valley Ford’s volunteer chief. “It’s going to force people to address an issue that’s already there.”
The Sea Ranch, north county and Schell-Vista fire officials are prepared to argue that the money should go with the agency providing the fire service. That’s historically been the decision in every recent case in which fire entities have merged or expanded, said Brian Elliott, Cloverdale’s former chief and a retired Santa Rosa fire captain. Elliott is a consultant for five agencies in financial talks with the county.
“I don’t want this to be an argument at all,” Elliott said. “This is about service delivery and how we need to fund it.”
He said the fundamental fire services question for county supervisors remains: “Are you in the game or are you out of the game?”
Fire chiefs said they are looking for the answer.
“All of us need to know what the direction of county fire is,” said Steve Adams, Healdsburg’s fire chief. “We need to have a road map. At the end, what is it we want to look like?”
Part 2: Rewards, hurdles in northern Sonoma County fire merger
The idea of one huge northern Sonoma County fire district offers potential benefits, but the path is complicated, with financial and organizational obstacles to overcome and the identities of independent districts in the balance.
It’s an option that could turn a 500-square-mile area now supervised by four fire chiefs into one jurisdiction with a single chief.
The new district would cover a third of Sonoma County, stretching from the coast range to the borders of Mendocino, Lake and Napa counties, and south toward greater Windsor. It would include the cities of Healdsburg and Cloverdale, numerous rural communities, Highway 101, upscale winery and vineyard regions, Lake Sonoma and The Geysers geothermal fields on the Sonoma-Lake county border.
If approved, it would be the largest fire service merger in modern county history. Supporters say the idea is born of a dire need.
Cloverdale and Geyserville districts are struggling with tighter budgets, fewer volunteers and increasing calls for help. Those two agencies and Healdsburg’s department all work together so much in their expansive corner of the county that it seems like common sense to join forces, Cloverdale Fire Chief Jason Jenkins said.
“Cloverdale, Geyserville and Healdsburg were looking at opportunities to share resources and provide a stronger volunteer workforce for our community,” Jenkins said.
The other entity involved is the Knights Valley Volunteer Fire Department, overseen by Sonoma County’s Fire and Emergency Services Department.
The four outfits are working on the idea with Sonoma County officials under the guidance of the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission, which oversees expansions of government boundaries. A six-month study commissioned by LAFCO is expected in May. Recommended results would range from doing nothing to a partial merger to all-out consolidation.
While the northern chiefs said they favor several benefits of regionalized firefighting, they also listed numerous hurdles.
“We have very different budgets, staffing levels, pay scales, benefits,” said Healdsburg Fire Chief Steve Adams. “If the agencies are to merge, there’s a lot of work to be done at the financial level… It’s not as easy as it sounds.”
Healdsburg Mayor Jim Wood said the city is participating in the study, but the City Council wouldn’t want to make changes if they reduce the effectiveness of the city’s firefighting force.
“If there are ways we can help other agencies and still continue to provide the highest level of service, we’re definitely open to that,” Wood said.
Geyserville and Cloverdale fire officials are committed to a merger and could complete it relatively quickly, said Jenkins and Geyserville Chief Marshall Turbeville.
A larger consolidation taking in the entire north county could take at least three years, fire officials said.
Mergers occur periodically, to varying degrees. In 2011, the departments in Windsor and Rincon Valley consolidated their management into the Central Fire Authority; firefighters have remained with their original departments. The effort still is working through growing pains involving budgets and staffing.
In 2012, the city of Ukiah in Mendocino County took steps toward merging three fire departments by hiring a fire chief who already was chief of the Ukiah Valley Fire District and Hopland volunteers.
On the east side of Sonoma County, the city of Sonoma and Valley of the Moon district firefighters in 2002 formed a joint-powers authority that evolved into a complete consolidation under the name of the Sonoma Valley Fire Protection District.
Others have rejected the idea. A 2005 study recommended that Bodega Bay, Monte Rio and Russian River districts merge into a single regional agency, but the district boards never took that step and remain independent entities.
Patchwork of firefighting agencies
The northern departments involved in current merger talks form a microcosm of Sonoma County’s mishmash of firefighting agencies.
Cloverdale, covering 68 square miles, and Geyserville, covering 218 square miles, are fire districts. They have a couple of paid firefighters, a handful of volunteer firefighters and part-time paid chiefs.
Healdsburg’s department covers four square miles with 12 paid firefighters and a full-time paid chief.
The city also contracts with the county for $125,000 a year to pick up calls in the 64-square-mile rural area known as Sotoyome, as well as Fitch Mountain.
To the northeast lies Knights Valley. Veteran Chief Augie Grube and about eight volunteer firefighters make up the company for the 48-square-mile area between Calistoga and Healdsburg.
In 2012, the volunteers operated on a shoestring budget of $7,850 — not counting fundraisers. Knights Valley volunteers responded to 57 calls in 2012, according to the county.
The larger, neighboring agencies also respond to Knights Valley calls, often showing up ahead of volunteers.
Even if studies show that joining forces would be best, a merger couldn’t work without additional money, fire officials said.
That money could come from as much as $1 million in property tax dollars collected by the county in various unincorporated northern areas, including about $500,000 from The Geysers geothermal fields.
The money is parceled out to Sonoma County’s 15 volunteer fire companies, which mainly lie many miles away from the northern areas. The only part of it to stay in the northern zone each year is $7,500 budgeted for Knights Valley, plus training funds and equipment; the $125,000 Sotoyome-Fitch Mountain contract with Healdsburg; and about $10,000 to Geyserville for calls to The Geysers.
That minimal share doesn’t sit well with the northern fire chiefs, who will negotiate with the county for a greater stake of the money.
“We are the agencies that protect the north county and have done that for many, many years,” said Jenkins. “The money should go to the agencies that provide that service. We have to be strong enough to have the ability to provide that service.”
Healdsburg’s Chief Adams cited the large, late-season wildfire at The Geysers in November. The response included the northern local fire departments and agencies from around the state. But no one responded from the local volunteer companies that directly benefit from The Geysers money, Adams said.
Questions about sharing resources, oversight identity
To help with the negotiations, the Geyserville and Cloverdale districts have hired former Cloverdale Fire Chief Brian Elliott, a private consultant specializing in fire department issues.
Supervisor Mike McGuire, who represents the north county and supports consolidation, cautioned that the north zone shouldn’t get all of the tax money.
“We can’t sacrifice one agency for another,” McGuire said.
The northern chiefs said they’re aware that, if the merger happens, their gain would leave a substantial financial hole for some of their countywide peers. They agreed with McGuire that their volunteer counterparts can’t be left in further financial difficulty and suggested the county would need to provide for those agencies in other ways.
“I’m not supportive of Healdsburg benefiting from something if another agency is going to have to reduce services. It all needs to be fair,” said Adams.
Geyserville Chief Turbeville suggested the county could consider a different model for the remaining fire companies, “maybe a countywide fire protection district.”
Then there is the question of how a consolidated northern district would be governed.
In addition to the four fire chiefs involved, there are currently three boards of directors, the Healdsburg City Council and the county Board of Supervisors making decisions about the area’s firefighting budgets and needs.
Other issues are perhaps closer to the hearts of the communities: What would a new fire district be called? And what would happen to the identities of the current agencies?
“Personally I am a little protective of our guys (firefighters). I want to see when our firefighters are in our community, I want to see those patches that say ‘Healdsburg Fire Department,’” Mayor Wood said.
Jenkins acknowledged the identity issue is serious.
“We all have strong ties and connections with our communities. It’s really important that is not lost,” Jenkins said.
He expected that whatever the name of a new district, the fire engines from each community still would keep their local names.
“The community will feel a sense of pride in their fire department as they always have,” said Jenkins.
(Read parts 3 & 4 here)
You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or firstname.lastname@example.org and Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or email@example.com.