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Most fire taxes pass election

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Voters in Valley of the Moon narrowly rejected a tax measure to raise funds for fire services in their area of eastern Sonoma County, while voters in the Rancho Adobe and Monte Rio fire districts approved measures to boost fire budgets in their areas.

The outcomes came as Sonoma County’s officials this week released final results from the Nov. 6 election, including complete tallies in the trio of fire districts that were too close to call on election night.

Valley of the Moon’s Measure Y sought a $200 annual tax per residential parcel to raise money for more firefighters. It lost by 11 votes, garnering 66.5 percent approval. It needed 66.6 percent to pass.

“We’re kind of shocked; varying emotions, disappointed. It’s hard to believe that we were that close,” Valley of the Moon Chief Steve Akre said Tuesday.

Tax measures in the Schell‑Vista and Glen Ellen fire districts secured enough support in the initial count from election night to have prevailed weeks ago.

The five districts proposed the tax measures to hire additional firefighters and bolster coverage across shifts. The campaigns took place in the shadow of 2017’s catastrophic fires that burned a large swath of Sonoma County, destroying more than 5,300 homes and killing 24 people.

The high rates of approval in the other four districts buoyed fire officials’ outlook.

“We’re very happy. We’ll move forward and look toward hiring paid staff,” said Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman.

For Monte Rio, the wait was tense as the volunteer fire district’s Measure U initially received 66.7 percent, indicating just a few votes separated a win from a loss. The final count showed a strong approval, at 70.5 percent.

Monte Rio is one of several financially troubled fire districts in the greater Russian River area talking about consolidation or at least shared services with other agencies. The $500,000 boost to Monte Rio’s budget — essentially doubling the current budget — could aid those talks, Baxman said.

“We’re going to have something to add, to bring to the table, paid staff, money,” the chief said. “It’ll feel more even.”

The new tax, including $200 per residential parcel plus $400 per commercial property, will pay for three firefighters, to have one paid person on duty per shift. A fifth of the new funds will be used annually for equipment needs, and remaining money will be saved for a new station, Baxman said.

Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District, which covers Cotati, Penngrove and Liberty Valley outside Petaluma, ended up with 70.3 percent approval for its Measure W.

Rancho Adobe has lost its past two attempts to pass a tax measure, so firefighters were thankful that this time they received enough support, said Rancho Adobe Battalion Chief Mike Weihman.

“We’re really excited. It was a heavy thing to have hanging over our heads for three weeks; there were so many uncounted ballots, it could have gone either way,” said Weihman.

Rancho Adobe’s parcel tax will jump from $40 to $300 for all parcels, adding about $2.1 million to the current $4.1 million budget. The money will pay for nine full-time firefighters. Other possible uses include increased firefighter pay, station repairs and equipment upgrades.

Schell-Vista fire won with 73.6 percent and Glen Ellen with 75.7 percent. Residential property owners in those districts will pay $200 annually per parcel. Glen Ellen’s commercial property owners will pay 10 cents per square foot and ag land owners will pay $100. Schell‑Vista commercial property owners will pay 14 cents per square foot and other parcels will cost $100 per year.

Schell‑Vista fire’s added $500,000 will hire three firefighters, expand a stipend program for overnight volunteers and guarantee two firefighters per engine. Glen Ellen’s added $380,000 will bolster the strapped budget to ensure firefighters and paramedics are on duty around the clock. It also will help with stipend pay for a third firefighter on duty for all three shifts.Valley of the Moon’s measure was the only fire tax to trail on the day after the election, with 65.3 percent of the vote. Fire officials and their allies were unsure of their next move.

“I think it’s a little too early to know for sure what we’re going to do,” Akre said. “We’ll be discussing the results and maybe brainstorming our options for next steps. We really need to get the board to see these results and talk about what their wishes are going forward.”

Service levels, with two firefighters per engine, were expected to remain the same. But district officials had hoped to hire more firefighters to get three per engine at all times, rather than rely on volunteers and those paid a stipend to make up the standard third position.

“We are where we are. We’ll have the same service level but we do still need to ensure our ability to provide service long term,” Akre said.