The Petaluma Fire Department has begun exploring the possibility of sharing some of its management duties with the cash-strapped Rancho Adobe Fire District in an effort to save both departments money and become eligible for federal funding to replace some of Petaluma's dilapidated fire trucks and ambulances.
The idea stems from the Petaluma Fire Department's desire to supplement the city's dwindling vehicle replacement fund, which is currently down to $150,000. The cost of replacing just one fire truck is about $500,000, while replacing a major fire engine would cost approximately $1.2 million. The department's two main ambulances are also in dire need of replacement, having broken down several times during the past year and gone far past their recommended six-year shelf life. Replacing the ambulances would cost between $140,000 and $170,000 each.
Currently, Rancho Adobe operates as a rural fire protection district, with the residents it serves paying taxes to fund the department's costs. The district covers Penngrove, Cotati and rural parts of Petaluma throughout an approximately 86-square-mile area with about 25,000 residents. Rancho Adobe employs both full-time paid staff, along with part-time firefighters, volunteers firefighters and community volunteers.
After the district failed to pass Measure Z — an additional $60-per-parcel tax — in the November election, Rancho Adobe was forced to close one of its three stations daily. The rolling closures, referred to as "brown outs," have left the district struggling to maintain speedy response times. In addition, Rancho Adobe has been cutting back on its part-time firefighter hours and may need to borrow money from the county this year to make up a $387,000 budget shortfall.
But, through a cost sharing agreement where Rancho Adobe would repay Petaluma for the use of its command staff, both Rancho Adobe and Petaluma's Fire Department could see some mutual savings, said Petaluma Fire Department Chief Larry Anderson at a city council planning session on Feb. 2, where the idea of cost sharing was first proposed.
Later in the week Anderson pointed out that cost-sharing options would not lead to the loss of any jobs, but would be accomplished through attrition.
Anderson said once he gets the go-ahead from City Council, he plans to explore several options, including a scenario that would consist of not replacing Rancho Adobe's command staff as they retire, leaving the district to share Petaluma's battalion chiefs. Rancho Adobe could then pay a portion of the cost of Petaluma's command staff salary.
In this option, command staff from Petaluma would respond to emergency calls with Rancho Adobe, but would not work out of their stations. Day-to-day control of Rancho Adobe's stations would remain under Rancho Adobe's board of directors. Anderson pointed out that by partnering with a rural fire district, Petaluma's department would qualify for additional federal grant funding to help replace its aging vehicles.
City Manager John Brown pointed out that selling command staff services to Rancho Adobe would not require Petaluma to take on any of the district's employees.
"We don't want to take their employees into our city operations," Brown said. "We're just talking about selling them a service. But the elected bodies involved would need to decide if they want to move forward with that — Cotati City Council, Petaluma's council and Rancho Adobe's board of directors."