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Petaluma, Rancho extend fire chief deal

In a move to increase collaboration between two key local fire agencies, Petaluma leaders Monday signed off a three-year contract to continue to share administrative services between the Petaluma Fire Department and the Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District.

Since last March, Petaluma’s Fire Chief Leonard Thompson has acted as the part-time leader of Rancho Adobe, which serves an estimated 25,000 residents in Penngrove, Cotati and unincorporated parts of Petaluma. The arrangement, prompted by the 2016 retirement of the district’s chief Frank Treanor, paved the way for efficiencies in both departments, Thompson said.

“It has made the city of Petaluma and its neighbors more efficient and effective in the delivery of emergency services,” Thompson told the City Council Monday prior to its unanimous approval of the contract.

The agreement has allowed for combined training opportunities, sharing of equipment, staff and facilities, and has led to the dropping of jurisdictional boundaries between agencies. Previously, engines first responded to calls that corresponded to their district boundaries, but now, the closest firefighters will ship out to the incident, regardless of those borders. Officials are also exploring the possibility of a shared recruit academy with Rancho Adobe, Petaluma and potentially Rohnert Park’s Public Safety Department to standardize training, Thompson said.

Mayor David Glass praised the cost-saving agreement, which comes as both the city and the district face mounting financial challenges. Thompson said exact figures for money saved by the city or projections for future savings were not available because of the complexities of the arrangement.

“The action you took personally to take on extra (work) and you succeeded so that we could move forward and achieve more savings — it’s that kind of innovation that I think is really good in the overall budget,” Glass said.

The district will compensate the city an amount not to exceed $57,419.32 annually for a share of Thompson’s salary, benefits and other costs. Thompson spends about eight hours at the district weekly, depending on the need.

The contact allows for an annual review and changes and includes provisions for termination. Staff from the city’s finance department didn’t respond to multiple requests for Thompson’s salary and benefits schedule, but Thompson said his current salary is about $183,000. In 2016, his benefits cost $64,473, according to city records.

City Councilman Chris Albertson, Petaluma’s former fire chief, previously expressed concerns about the city receiving a fair rate for Thompson’s time. When the trial contract was approved, he said he’d like to see the district pay more for the cost of Thompson’s benefits, which are covered in this iteration.

“The fire chief is a very qualified and capable administrator and doing the work isn’t that difficult for him,” he said. “The compensation is now adequate to offset the loss of him not being here.”

Greg Karakker, a member of the Ranch Adobe district’s board of directors, touted Thompson’s leadership. The panel unanimously approved the three-year extension in January, Board Clerk Jennifer Ober said.

“We’re delighted that he’s going to be with us for the next three years and to extend a really positive arrangement that’s working very well for us,” Karraker said.

Still, a larger merger of the departments isn’t likely in the near future, according to city and board officials. It’s too soon to tell if the shared services agreement will be extended again, Thompson said.

“(A merger) is certainly not something on our radar,” Karraker said. “We’re looking at efficiencies through shared services, but full consolidation would be quite a ways downstream.”

Combining departments would be difficult to navigate, partly because of significant differences in employees’ salaries. Thompson is looking for ways to equalize wages and bring on more full-time staff to Rancho Adobe, he said.

The city department has a $13.38 million annual budget and employs 48 full-time personnel and five battalion chiefs across its three stations, which serve the city’s more than 60,000 residents.

Rancho Adobe employs 17 full-time and 22 part-time firefighters, as well as three battalion chiefs. The district’s $3.8 million budget is funded largely by property taxes.

The smaller district is faced with significant financial hurdles and is projected to be in the red as much as $152,000 for this fiscal year, though that figure could fluctuate, Ober said.

Ballot measures to pass parcel taxes that have not increased since 1993 have twice failed, including in 2012, when voters rejected Measure Z, a $60 parcel tax that would have padded the district’s budget. The board of directors are in talks about a potential November 2018 parcel tax ballot measure, though specifics are still being worked out, Karraker said.

“It’s a great idea that we do this (ballot measure),” Thompson said, adding that he’s not aware of any other funding sources available in the near future. “We need to go back to the public to have them realize that if they want quality fire services to continue, that they need to support that. I think a ballot measure is the best way to go.”

Karakker said the district, which will be competing with other agencies hard hit by October’s fires, stands at risk of losing some or all of its $300,000 in annual funding from Graton Rancheria casino, an allotment doled out by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. It also lost $63,200 in revenue from a property tax hit caused by the October wildfires, Ober said.

Karakker said that if additional dollars don’t start flowing to the district’s budget, it may prompt service interruptions at stations. Those rolling blackouts, which also happened several years ago, could double the time it takes firefighters to respond to emergencies. Thompson said that those interruptions, if they come at all, would be about two years out.

“When fire stations close on a rolling blackout basis, the average response times go from three minutes to six minutes,” Karakker said. “When you have a heart attack and strokes, the first minutes are critical, not to mention when people’s homes are on fire — it’s that critical response that we’re very afraid of losing if we don’t solve some financial problems.”

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)