Bodega Bay Fire considers charging or curtailing services amid fiscal emergency

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, Sonoma West Times & News, March 26, 2021

bodega bay fire district

Bodega Bay Fire District employees at cliff rescue training. Eighty percent of its emergency calls involve people from outside of the district, with 40% from outside of the county. (Courtesy Bodega Bay Fire Protection District)

The Bodega Bay Fire Protection District (BBFPD) is bracing for layoffs and exploring reducing or charging for services to areas that do not pay for the district’s cost of readiness to stabilize itself, according to Assistant Fire Chief Steve Herzberg.

During the fire district’s special board meeting on March 22, Liz Martin, president of the board of directors, announced direction had been given to staff but no action was taken at the end of the closed session. The next board meeting will be April 13 at 6 p.m.

The district’s board of directors declared a state of fiscal emergency on March 11, after Measure B’s defeat in early March pulled down BBFPD’s intended financial bridge to consolidate with Sonoma County Fire District.

Herzberg said he contacted Senator Mike McGuire’s Office “and they are in fact working on helping,” while the board directed its attorney to “research and take the initial steps” of reducing services to state and county parks and other non-paying areas at the March 11 meeting.

The assistant fire chief said BBFPD faces understaffing so austere it is not safe for the community of Bodega Bay, its visitors and the firefighter-paramedics. He said the district cannot afford to hire staff to replace two paramedics it lost since Measure B washed out nor pay the overtime required by law for its remaining staff.

The district stands likely to lose another paramedic, which would leave three 48-hour shifts staffed by only three paid personnel — a risky arrangement if a call comes in for an ambulance that must be staffed by at least two responders, Herzberg said.

The fire captain left behind is the only staff member on shift to take command and drive the fire engine if another emergency unfolds, he said. There are volunteers, but the district can only guarantee its scheduled staff at the firehouse can respond quickly, Herzberg told Sonoma West Times & News on March 25.

“Be it a fire, a rescue, an extrication, a water call, a serious medical call, that one person is not sufficient staffing to either meet the emergency’s need or to keep that solo responder safe,” he said.

What’s more, Herzberg said the staffing arrangement breaches the National Fire Protection Association’s minimum staffing levels for an engine in a rural staffing model.

“If you look at the rural staffing models, it would be four people on that engine. Three people’s probably more likely in rural staffing, two is unacceptable and one is unheard of. So, we’re in that position now where we’re pretty much in the unheard of,” he said.

Moreover, mandating staff take on that additional coverage would not be fair or safe, Herzberg said. “They put in a full week of hard work here and to have them come back and try and work to fill another tour just really isn’t possible and they’ve let know, they’re burning out,” he said.

The assistant fire chief said the district would do its best to serve the community in the current state of affairs, but that he believed BBFPD would “fail” without stable staffing and jobs. “And I think right now, with nothing really clearly on the horizon, we’re on that brink of failure.”

Attendees call on county to take action

A few wives of BBFPD staff members spoke out about how the staffing model could jeopardize their spouses’ safety when taking the wheel of the fire engine alone.

“This is an extremely unsafe situation that can easily lead to the injury or death of my husband, and this is the heart of my concern,” Jody Bynum said, calling for the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to take action to support Bodega Bay’s emergency services.

“It is reprehensible that Sonoma County continues to further their tourism business while ignoring any meaningful contribution to the safety net to protect our customers,” she continued.

Rhianna Menzies, wife of a full-time firefighter-paramedic, said, “By going to 3-0 staffing, we are rolling the dice on every single shift. From the public’s perspective, they will see a fully sized fire engine turn up to an incident and expect it to perform in the same way as a properly staffed engine. The public are being served up a dangerously reduced and hamstrung fire service which will only become apparent to them when there is a serious emergency.”

Community member Beth Bruzzone went further to say the lack of backup paramedic services could ultimately result in someone’s death if BBFPD’s ambulance was responding elsewhere at the same time.

Fire Chief Sean Grinnell read a letter from firefighting veteran Lori Anello, also a wife of a BBFPD staff member. The letter described the immense anxiety she experiences when her husband is alone on the engine knowing he and other staff members would be compelled to “risk everything to save a life.”

Anello’s letter as read by Grinnell said the district’s board and administration have tried to address its issues for years, but that the sounding alarms were dismissed “as a local problem.” The letter continued, “It is clear that those pleas continue to be only paid lip service by politicians into an opportunity to seize district funding ideas to possibly benefit their own interests. Only then did they push for a halfhearted funding option that was tied to an entity that had nothing to do with providing fire and EMS to the coast.”

The county also took the heat from Jack Thomas, introducing himself as president of the Professional Firefighters of Sonoma County. “The citizens of Bodega Bay have done more than their part by taxing themselves and it’s far past time for the county of Sonoma and the state of California to pitch in their fair share which they can do right now.”

Herzberg and Directors Charlie Bone and Joe Conway spoke to the need for structural, long-lasting plans to address the district’s financial struggles. Bone said the previous county-level financial analysis of the district demonstrated a structural deficit such that “augmentation, shoring up, short-term funding, none of that would make a difference to the way that we do business.”

BBFPD’s general counsel presents ways to charge or curtail services

The district’s general counsel, Bill Adams, presented several options the board of directors can take to raise revenue and possibly reduce services.

“Clearly there is a triage emergency need right now for an infusion of some bridge capital to keep the Bodega Bay Fire District together. What I was asked to look at was what are longer term, sustainable solutions,” he said. “And really, it’s you either get more revenue or you provide less services, but you can’t do the same services with the same decreasing revenue.”

The fastest way to address the district’s issues would be to establish service zones, a hybrid method that could allow charging some areas more for their service and reduce service in other places, Adams said.

“You actually as a board can determine that certain portions of your district are going to have additional or different or less services, and you can determine how those will get paid for or not paid for, and that’s why they have less services,” Adams said, adding service zones are “exempt from the LAFCO review process.”

He continued to say service zones typically involve some people paying more for “enhanced services above the baseline that’s being provided at whatever the tax rate is.”

In addition, Adams said the board can amend its fee ordinance to charge non-residents or non-taxpayers a greater fee than Bodega Bay residents, addressing the often-quoted statistic that 80% of its calls for service come from non-residents.

According to Adams, this is the second-fastest approach, requiring a cost study to determine that the fees wouldn’t be greater than the service costs, followed by a public hearing before the board can set the fees.

“So, if you make the determination, take the data, do a study, determine what that amount of calls is, what would be the backfill amount to charge more to nonresidents and non-taxpayers, and you’ve gone through the fee process, you can levy that charge,” he said.

Under Section 13918, Adams said the board can seek to charge public entities like the county of Sonoma and the state service fees. “There are three pieces of government land that I heard referenced: state parks, and camping grounds along the coast, county parks, and then county open-space or protected areas,” he said.

“The final area I want to get into is the curtailment of services or territory,” Adams said, the longest path BBFPD can take. He said divesting through the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) could take between six and 12 months, but closer to the full year.

The district could communicate to LAFCO that it attempted to charge other public entities for service, with information on readiness costs and a baseline of calls, he said.

“You wouldn’t have to do it this way, but a way to me that would seem very supportive of a petition to LAFCO is to say, ‘We have now passed that bill along, to the county or state government,’” Adams said. He gave little further explanation because he said he thought constitutional and litigation issues would arise in the scenario, but that fire district law provides a process to request cutting areas from the district if fees weren’t being paid.

According to Adams, “One of the largest reasons could potentially be that those service areas are … creating deficit spending such that you cannot sustain those areas where citizens are paying, residents and taxpayers are paying for this service, because you are forced to be providing services essentially for free.”

Additionally, the district can gain immunity from choosing not to deploy a firetruck or ambulance simultaneously “if you make it as a matter of policy,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s something you can do to curtail services.”

According to Adams, the BBFPD has immunities granted by fire districts Government Code, Section 850 about what services it provides and where. Government Code, Section 850 states, “Neither a public entity nor a public employee is liable for failure to establish a fire department or otherwise to provide fire protection service.”

Further, Government Code, Section 850.2 states, “Neither a public entity that has undertaken to provide fire protection service, nor an employee of such a public entity, is liable for any injury resulting from the failure to provide or maintain sufficient personnel, equipment or other fire protection facilities.”

“It is a very rare thing, but it is a tool. It’s probably the one that takes the longest, but it is a realistic process that I would urge your board when we get into closed session — none of these are rapid,” he said. Later, he said, “You need those resources tomorrow and next month and nothing I talked about begins to give any relief probably any sooner than summer.”

This article was produced by Sonoma West Times & News, the hometown newspaper of Sebastopol and west county since 1889. See more news at sonomawest.com