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Sonoma County supervisors OK $42 million for annual firefighting improvements; tax measure possible

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Six local fire chiefs stood together Tuesday before the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, a show of force emphasizing their request that supervisors spend $42 million a year to hire more firefighters, build fire stations and acquire newer fire engines.

“We need to move forward with rescuing our own fire services,” Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner.

Supervisors voted enthusiastically for the plan, citing the need to improve safety throughout the county in light of ongoing devastating wildland fires. They also followed the chiefs’ recommendation to look into a possible ½‑cent countywide sales tax measure in 2019 to pay for it.

But supervisors also warned the 20 or so fire chiefs and fire officials in the audience that some support hinges on a continued push for agency consolidation as part of ongoing modernization of the county’s patchwork of 39 agencies, which has grown threadbare in spots.

“What can we promise our communities? What are we getting in return for this?” asked east county Supervisor Susan Gorin. She said she’d want to tell her residents a sales tax would result in not just more bodies and equipment but improved efficiencies and a streamlined system.

West county Supervisor Lynda Hopkins called for an end of the “tribalism” of fire agencies, noting 22 of the county’s agencies are in her district. Aggressive pursuit of funding will require aggressive pursuit of consolidation, Hopkins said.

County staff now will gather details on various complications to work through to get such a tax onto a ballot next year, including how to make the pitch for a sales tax when 17 fire agencies already have a parcel or special tax ranging from very small to more than $500 in Bodega Bay. A report will come to the board this fall, said Jim Colangelo, the county’s interim head of the Department of Fire and Emergency Services. A ½‑cent tax was estimated to bring in almost $42 million.

“We’re going to need a lot of money to make this happen,” Colangelo told the board as he outlined the plan.

It calls for an additional 175 paid firefighters, including paramedic‑firefighters to improve medical responses countywide, 10 new fire stations, increased fire prevention and money to replace the county’s many, decades‑old engines and water tenders.

There are currently about 400 paid firefighters in the county and a few hundred volunteers. Many firefighters work out of outdated, cramped firehouses in locations the chiefs say are no longer strategic for current emergency needs.

While local fire agencies are quick with mutual aid for neighboring departments, the system is plagued with response holes. Larger agencies shoulder the response burden to many of the more rural areas where volunteers and funding are in short supply.

With the increasing call for firefighters to help on the state’s numerous mega‑fires, coupled with added fire risk at home, the county needs more firefighters to make sure local needs are covered, Colangelo said.

Board Chairman James Gore said fire, lives and safety have to be county priorities “because of what’s ahead of us,” with current fire behavior causing more and faster destruction. “The stinking Santa Ana wind nights we’re having make me very unsettled.”

While supporting the need for a stronger firefighting service, Gore said the $42 million estimated annual cost is far more than the county can afford without gutting other needs. He supported a sales tax and told fire chiefs the county will need their help making the case to voters if the board moves ahead with a ballot measure.

Fire chiefs in the past several years unified to lobby supervisors for money, warning the system was starting to unravel and that measurable improvements could cost at least $11 million annually. A county review of fire services started in 2014, marked by frustration and foot dragging by many fire folks unwilling to give up their independence, evolved to the current plan with the new price tag.

Supervisors praised fire officials for pulling together, acknowledging it’s a change from prior focus on self-interest.

Supervisor David Rabbitt feared pinning all hopes for improving the service on a sales tax and said supervisors should continue looking to bed tax money and other state money available to bolster fire services.

Many fire officials have raised the point that if the county had kept up with fire funding in the past few decades there wouldn’t be a need for such a huge financial ask. Supervisors don’t contest the point. “We have gotten by on the cheap for a long time on fire services,” Rabbitt said.

Fred Peterson, a Geyserville fire board member who was active in helping develop the plan, told supervisors that should a sales tax measure fail, they will need to find a way to keep fire services healthy. “If it’s a priority ... you’ll figure it out.”

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.