The recent signing of an agreement calling for Petaluma Fire Chief Leonard Thompson to continue providing part-time management oversight to the adjacent Rancho Adobe Fire District is a win for both the City of Petaluma as well as the 25,000 people living in Penngrove, Cotati and the unincorporated area north of town. The three-year agreement offers enhanced public safety services, operational efficiencies and fiscal savings, and is exactly the kind of innovative and sensible practice necessary in this era of scarce public resources.
However, the matter of solving the larger crisis in rural fire services remains frustratingly elusive, with thousands of south County residents under the increasing threat of both uncontrollable wildfires and inadequate response times to medical emergencies. Despite years of talks between the 37 different countywide fire service agencies, the only tangible outcome was a general commitment to consolidate some of the agencies. Ultimately, county supervisors will have to find new sources of revenue.
For the estimated 5,000 people living immediately west of Petaluma served by the Wilmar Volunteer Fire Department, building the financial resources necessary to ensure adequate public safety will require more than bake sales and pancake breakfast fundraisers.
Their plight is shared by thousands of neighboring residents in the rural areas served by the Two Rock, Lakeville and San Antonio volunteer fire departments, where dramatically rising demands for emergency services are not matched by funding.
People living in these rural areas are fortunate to have dedicated, selfless and highly trained volunteer firefighters willing to respond to their emergency calls. However, the number of those volunteers is declining, and so are the dollars necessary to purchase expensive equipment.
Unlike areas covered by volunteer fire departments, whose budgets are almost entirely dependent on the county, fire districts like Rancho Adobe can at least rely on property tax revenues to finance most of their operations. But even fire districts are hurting.
At Rancho Adobe, persistent revenue shortages have at times caused some of the district’s three fire stations to close on a rotating basis. The small, cash-strapped district currently forecasts to be in the red by as much as $150,000 for the current fiscal year, partly due to property tax losses caused by the October wildfires.
Parcel tax increases in Rancho Adobe have twice failed, including in 2012 when a $60 parcel tax proposal lost despite winning 62 percent of the vote. The district’s board of directors is currently working on another parcel tax measure for this November. If it doesn’t pass, residents will likely again see rolling brownouts at their fire stations, which district officials say could double firefighter response times. For someone suffering a heart attack or stroke, the first minutes are critical.
Ultimately, more work needs to be done to consolidate fire services for the rural areas around Petaluma. But unless there is also a willingness to pay for those services, residents may one day face a life-threatening emergency and wonder why the help they have taken for granted has not yet arrived.