AC Editorial: Yes on G for robust fire service

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As a Petaluma voter, it’s easy to look at Measure G and ask, “What’s in it for me?”

Measure G is the half-cent sales tax increase on the March 3 ballot that would raise an estimated $51 million per year, all of it dedicated for fire suppression and prevention and emergency medical services.

Petaluma, the second largest city in Sonoma County, would get a little more than 3% or about $1.9 million annually of the total tax revenue. That doesn’t seem like much of a benefit and hardly worth raising our taxes for, which would be true if Petaluma was covered by a glass dome.

But the reality is we don’t live on an isolated island. The 38 fire departments and districts that operate in Sonoma County all participate in mutual aid. This means that, during a major incident, you might see three or four fire engines responding, all emblazoned with different emblems. Firefighters don’t pursue a call up to their district lines and then hand it off to a neighboring jurisdiction. They all help each other.

This was never more clear than during the major Sonoma County wildfires in 2017 and 2019. While Petaluma was spared damage from the Tubbs fire or the Kincade fire, we sent multiple engines for days at a time to these major fires.

Since these types of incidents are becoming more frequent, Petaluma could reasonably expect to be threatened by a major wildfire in the near future. At that point, we would hope for a robust countywide response, the same way Petaluma and other fire agencies held the line and protected Windsor in 2019.

Measure G, which is worth supporting on the March ballot, would help ensure that all county fire agencies have the tools they need to protect us from the ever increasing threat of wildfire.

One thing it would do is encourage the many agencies to consolidate and modernize — to get a share of the sales tax revenue, fire districts and volunteer companies would be obligated to work toward regional consolidation.

Mark Heine, chief of the newly formed Sonoma County Fire District, told the Press Democrat editorial board that five or six municipal departments plus one fire district in each of the county’s four geographic quadrants is an achievable goal for consolidation.

Measure G doesn’t specify a target or fix any deadlines, a reflection of the stiff resistance from some agencies that has stymied consolidation for decades.

That’s a flaw in this proposal. However, the Board of Supervisors would be empowered to cut funding for fire districts that resist, and Measure G requires an assessment of progress and allocations once $172 million of the tax revenue has been distributed.

Here are a few other notable benefits from Measure G:

The expenditure plan includes 200 additional firefighters, with paramedic training, spread across the county, so local agencies can get closer to the national guidelines of arriving within 5 minutes on 90% of emergency calls and three trained firefighters on each engine.

It would pay for nine new fire stations, replacing some that don’t meet modern seismic safety standards, as well as eight relocations and upgrades at numerous other stations.

There is money for equipment, including fire engines, ambulances, breathing apparatus and other safety gear for firefighters.

Fire districts would be authorized to spend some of their share on emergency alert systems, including hi-lo warning sirens for evacuations.

The county would receive about $2.5 million a year to upgrade emergency notification systems and about $2 million a year for stepped-up vegetation management efforts.

There also is funding to hire inspectors dedicated to vegetation management.

Petaluma can use its share of the revenue to upgrade equipment and improve fire stations. Also, having better equipped agencies on the outskirts of Petaluma, like Rancho Adobe, Wilmar, Two Rock and Lakeville, will ease the mutual aid burden on everyone.

We realize that voters may be feeling a little like an ATM machine around election time — indeed there is another local tax measure just on the primary ballot, and there could be more in November.

But the threat of wildfires in Sonoma County is only going to increase, and we should have the best equipped public safety service in the state. Measure G helps get us there.

The Argus-Courier recommends a yes vote on Measure G on March 3.

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