Bodega Bay and Sonoma County Fire look to county to approve funding for consolidation path
By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, SoCoNews, July 21, 2021
The end may finally be in sight, seven years down the road, to consolidation for Bodega Bay Fire Protection District (BBFPD) and Sonoma County Fire District (SCFD), by BBFPD Assistant Chief Steve Herzberg’s count.
SCFD Fire Chief Mark Heine said they could seal the union by Jan. 1, 2022 “at the latest,” so long as the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approves funding for fire services at an upcoming July 20 meeting.
During a joint meeting on July 13, the BBFPD and SCFD boards of directors accepted the board of supervisor’s terms regarding funding for consolidation and directed fire chiefs to negotiate with the supervisors how to carry out the conditions to pull off this feat once and for all.
“We’re not done yet,” said Herzberg. He said the districts still need to ensure the fire services funding package coming July 20 to the board of supervisors passes.
Board chair and Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins agreed that “garnering support for these proposals from the full board is absolutely essential” for the upcoming board meeting.
She recommended the two boards of directors make a statement of support for the entire board of supervisors, “I do feel that that would be of tremendous benefit because we do need to show support for this initiative in the hopes of getting it across the finish line.”
What’s in store for BBFPD and other fire agencies at upcoming supervisors meeting
According to its July 20 agenda, the board of supervisors will consider two authorizations in particular in an item related to “fire services agency stabilization and consolidation efforts.”
First, the board will consider permitting the county administrator to enter an agreement with BBFPD for up to $1 million in stabilization funding each year until June 30, 2023.
Second, the item will also allow the county administrator to negotiate and carry out initial agreements “to distribute up to $7.9 million to facilitate fire agency consolidations based on the holistic funding structure” that numerous fire agencies put together.
Those listed are: SCFD and BBFPD; Kenwood Fire Protection District; and the County Services Area #40 with Northern Sonoma County Fire Protection District, Gold Ridge Fire Protection District and SCFD, each.
The preliminary conditions set in the BBFPD “Stabilization and Distribution Plan Review” included in the July 13 info package said the two agencies will begin negotiations to enter into a preliminary agreement, transferring a total of $3 million per year of county discretionary funds upon annexation.
The review also said they’re both “expected to fully support and cooperate with the pursuit of a new fire tax.”
The fire services item proposes directing staff to work with the Fire Services Work Group toward a “Sonoma County Wildfire Prevention, Emergency Alert and Response Measure” to present voters in June, 2022.
Hopkins shared on June 8 that $500,000 for up-staffing had been authorized by the board of supervisors for a two-year contract, per BBFPD board meeting minutes,
Herzberg said on June 16 that such a commitment had been made to other respective agencies, as well.
This year’s struggle isn’t the first time budget limitations thwarted Bodega Bay Fire’s consolidation plans.
The district’s financial state prevented the district from going the rest of the way after LAFCO gave its stamp of approval for its consolidation with SCFD in December 2019, according to the summary report.
In March 2020, voters cast down Measure G, a proposed half-cent fire sales tax.
What consolidation and related funding can do for BBFPD and SCFD
Heine praised the move to better serve west county’s needs and lower tax rates.
The parcel tax rate for the Bodega Bay community is $524, fronting the cost of over 200 miles of service area, according to Herzberg. That burden would ease once the districts merge because the annexing agency, SCFD, would impose its parcel tax of just $184, he said in a July 15 interview.
Further, Herzberg said consolidation would increase the staffing levels out of a dangerously low number. After losing four employees, there are currently eight or nine full-time firefighter paramedics on staff in Bodega Bay, he said.
“We have three people on duty every day right now. That is way too few,” Herzberg said. An ambulance requires two people, so a call to an emergency and transport to the hospital could leave one person behind on the engine for two to three hours.
“You cannot have the captain driving the engine and taking command of a call at the same time. And that’s what we’re doing in Bodega Bay right now,” the assistant fire chief said.
Noting the National Fire Protection Association’s standard for rural engines is five people, he said, “Four would be a luxury. Three is a necessity. Two, we’ve been getting by with. One is unsafe.”
The plan, according to Herzberg, is that once Bodega Bay consolidates into SCFD, there would be five employees on duty and therefore three people left behind if an ambulance heads out.
Chief Sean Grinnell, Herzberg and volunteers try to make up the difference so far, but volunteers staffing other agencies can’t run BBFPD’s calls while they’re working, he said.
The post-consolidation plan is also to add and staff a third ambulance in service of west county, united as Sonoma County Fire.
“And that’s critical because right now, when SCFD’s ambulance out of Russian River is busy, we are the only ambulance in west county,” Herzberg said. “It will be a major gain for the safety on the coast.”
District leaders spoke highly of each other’s agencies and their collaboration to join forces through thick and thin over the years during their shared board meeting. SCFD recently donated a fire engine to BBFPD, Herzberg shared.
BBFPD post-Measure B and history of fiscal struggle
The failure of Measure B in March this year cast BBFPD into a crisis, with the board declaring a state of fiscal emergency on March 11.
Measure B was BBFPD’s ticket out to consolidation, without which “the district will fail,” the statement from the board said.
Measure B sought to pull in $2.7 million through a proposed 4% additional bed tax in west county, to be shared evenly between sustaining emergency and rescue services in the region and sustaining west county school facilities.
Hospital leaders opposed Measure B, saying the increased tax would hurt their industry’s recovery from the pandemic.
Herzberg said in March that one firefighter-paramedic resigned after Measure B’s defeat “tipped the scale for him” a week after helping save someone’s life, against a backdrop of other resignations due to the district’s instability, SoCoNews reported then.
The assistant fire chief said consolidation means bolstering the station with stable career jobs, a better service model and safety for the coast.
In a March 8 interview, Grinnell told SoCoNews that BBFPD’s most recent estimated deficit at the time was $344,000 as the projection changes as actual numbers factor into the formula each month.
BBFPD’s board of directors issued a March 6 statement that linked to a letter from audit manager Kanchan K. Charan to Sonoma County Administrator Sheryl Bratton dated for July 17, 2020.
The letter indicated the district was working with a structural deficit and “on an ongoing basis, we estimate the district will need $900,000 per year from the county or other outside source to cover operating costs.”
Bodega Bay Fire turns to fulfilling its mission to consolidate
“Albeit at the risk of trying to avoid getting emotional, it’s been a hell of a road and all I really want to say right now is just thank you,” Grinnell said at the joint board meeting.
“Where we are today is really the product of a lot of very very hard work, steadfast work by a lot of people, and it’s been the product of a lot of people having faith in the ultimate goal and staying the course even though the course was twisted and windy,” Herzberg said.
BBFPD gets the funds to replace a breaking down ambulance
Not only are BBFPD and SCFD trying to bring a third ambulance to west county, but Bodega Bay Fire also needs to replace one of the ambulances it already has, Herzberg said.
“Our frontline ambulance has been a disaster. It breaks down constantly,” he said.
According to Herzberg, various benefactors have provided the district the money to buy another ambulance to take its place from various benefactors, including a confidential Bodega Bay resident who donated $100,000, a tourism bureau that gave $75,000 and the Inn At the Tides and its restaurant.
This article was produced by SoCoNews. See more news at soconews.org