Why Reorganize Fire Agencies?
There are almost forty fire and emergency service agencies in the County, if you include volunteer fire companies (the companies are part of a “county service area” administered by the Board of Supervisors). While these agencies do a great job of providing mutual aid to each other, service levels and quality are slipping, particularly in rural and remote parts of the County.
Most of the agencies serving unincorporated areas rely wholly or almost entirely on volunteers rather than paid employees. The ranks of volunteers have declined over time – people don’t often work in the community they live in, and meeting increasingly demanding training requirements presents another obstacle to attracting new recruits.
Many agencies recognize that they need to transition to a paid professional workforce in order to maintain service levels. In particular, agencies need to be able to respond to calls within a reasonable time frame, with the right number of qualified staff, and with the right equipment in hand. They also need to have appropriate levels of service for ambulance transports (if they don’t provide it themselves), and the ability to call on neighboring agencies for support when needed.
Transitioning to a paid workforce is really beyond the capabilities of volunteer fire companies and many fire protection districts – not just financially (though that is a huge challenge), but also from an administrative and leadership perspective. It is no small matter to manage paid professionals, and a model of larger, regional agencies would be better-suited to meet community needs.
What Are The Financial Implications of Regional Reorganizations?
Many citizens would be excused for assuming that reducing the number of government agencies, like fire departments, should lead to efficiency gains and lower costs. After all, if two fire agencies consolidate, one chief position should be eliminated, saving that salary, right?
While there may indeed be some efficiencies gained from consolidation, the cost savings are likely to be quite modest, especially in light of a move from primarily volunteer fire fighters to a roster that includes at least some paid staff.
With that in mind, property owners in unincorporated Sonoma County might expect that their local fire protection district might seek voter approval for special assessments – usually in the form of an annual “parcel tax” that is usually collected through the property tax collection system. For those agencies with an existing tax, there may be proposals to increase them. (In 2018, five of six districts that proposed parcel tax measures received voter approval.)
Another way that special assessments can be initiated is through a reorganization process. If a district that has an approved assessment annexes an agency without an assessment (or a lower one), the special assessment extends to the new territory, without the requirement of seeking voter approval.
But, importantly, the residents of the territory being annexed have the right to protest the reorganization when it is proposed to
(If an election is called, only a majority of voters is required to uphold the annexation and the extension of special assessments, not the two-thirds majority required for tax measures.)
How About Some Examples?
In 2016, the Commission approved the formation of the North Sonoma Coast Fire Protection District, which comprised two volunteer fire companies in Sea Ranch and Annapolis. The formation did not include the extension of special assessments – the District has not proposed one to date.
In 2018 two relatively small areas served by volunteer fire companies in Sonoma Valley were annexed into the Schell Vista Fire Protection District. The District subsequently sought a parcel tax which was approved by voters.
The Commission also has regulatory oversight of fire services contracts, and approved an arrangement for Valley of the Moon Fire Protection District to provide services to the Glen Ellen FPD. Under a contract, special assessments are not extended, but Glen Ellen did pass a parcel tax measure in 2018 that will provide financial support for the contractual arrangement.
What is on the Horizon?
In 2019, the Commission will be considering several reorganizations, as well as an evaluation of fifteen fire and emergency service agencies in West County:
- The Geyserville Fire Protection District is proposing to annex the Knights Valley Volunteer Fire Company, which serves territory to the east of Geyserville. Geyserville FPD does not have a special assessment.
- The Roseland Fire Protection District has applied to LAFCO for dissolution – the majority of its territory was annexed to the City of Santa Rosa as part of a proposal in 2017. The City has been providing services to Roseland FPD under contract since 1983, so the residents of the five “island” territories that were annexed into the City will see no change to service levels. The City does not levy any special assessments for fire services, but the residents of the territories are subject to other special taxes, such as a “utility users tax”.
Roseland FPD also serves two “remainder” islands of territory outside of city limits that are not currently eligible for annexation to the City. (The City has not given any indication of any plans to expand further in the area.) LAFCO staff will propose at the Commission meeting on February 6th that these “remainder” areas be annexed into the Rincon Valley Fire Protection District, which provides services in the areas surrounding the islands.
It should be noted first that residents in the “remainder” areas should expect that City crews will respond to their calls even after the annexation. The City station on Burbank Avenue in Roseland is closer than Rincon Valley’s station on Todd Road, and the City and Rincon Valley FPD have a long-standing agreement to provide services without regard to agency boundaries – Rincon Valley responds to calls in the City, and vice versa, depending on crew location and availability.
Rincon Valley does have a parcel tax of $36 per year, which will be assessed in the “remainder” territories if the annexation is approved, and if residents do not mount a successful protest.
Just to complicate matters for the residents of the “remainder” territories, the Commission will be considering a much larger reorganization that includes Rincon Valley FPD, as described below.
- Last year, the Commission laid the groundwork for a reorganization involving the Windsor, Bennett Valley, and Rincon Valley Fire Protection Districts, and a portion of County Service Area 40 served by the Mountain Volunteer Fire Department.
At the February 6, 2019 meeting, the Commission will consider the reorganization, which includes dissolution of Rincon Valley and Bennett Valley FPDs, and detachment of the Mountain VFD, with subsequent annexation of the three areas to Windsor FPD. (The Windsor FPD will become the “Sonoma County Fire Protection District”.)
From a service perspective, the reorganized entity expects to maintain and in many ways improve staffing levels throughout its territory. For example, Sonoma County FPD plans to post a fire fighter in the Mountain area to provide early response to calls and to provide reconnaissance (such as early warnings for wildfires).
Windsor FPD does have special assessments in the form of two parcel taxes: one is a fixed fee per parcel, and the other is based on “units of risk”. The second assessment varies depending on whether a property is developed or not, whether it is residential or commercial, what size the residence is, and what type of business and size of commercial building is on the property. The District reports that average single-family residential properties pay about $180 (which includes both assessments).
If the reorganization is approved, and withstands protest, Windsor’s tax assessments would be levied on the three annexed territories:
Bennet Valley FPD property owners have a current assessment that is about $185 per year so may actually see a small decrease under Windsor FPD rates. (Residents with large homes may see an increase.)
Rincon Valley FPD property owners are currently assessed a flat rate of $36 per parcel per year, and so would see an increase under Windsor’s assessment rates. (Note that the two “remainder” areas of Roseland FPD are being annexed first to Rincon Valley FPD, then to Windsor FPD, so will go from no special assessment to Windsor’s rates.)
Mountain VFD property owners do not have any special assessment, and would be subject to Windsor’s rates after annexation.
(Windsor FPD staff can assist residents in determining their special assessment liabilities. Contact the District at (707) 838-1170.)
How Do I Find Out About Commission Proceedings
The Commission provides meeting agendas and information packets generally one week before meetings, which are held on the first Wednesday of each month at 2 PM at the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chambers, 575 Administration Drive in Santa Rosa.
For public hearings (for example adjudication of reorganization proposals), the Commission publishes notices in local newspapers, and notifies affected agencies and anyone who indicates that they are an interested party.
In some cases, the Commission also provides direct mailed notice to voters and/or property owners who will be affected by an action. In cases where a special assessment will be extended from an agency over annexed territory, the Commission must send direct mailed notice of public hearings to the landowners who will be affected by the reorganization.
How Do I Protest a Commission Action?
Assuming that the Commission approves a reorganization, there is an opportunity for affected residents to “protest” the action. By law, the Commission schedules a protest period ranging between 31 and 60 days, during which affected landowners and/or registered voters can file written petitions with the Commission.
The petitions are essentially counted in two piles: one for landowners and one for registered voters. If a registered voter in the territory also owns property (or multiple properties) they can file petitions in both categories.
If a majority of registered voters, or a majority of landowners who own property worth collectively a majority of the land value in the territory, file protests, the Commission action is overturned.
If 25% of registered voters, or 25% of landowners, file written protests, the Commission conducts an election to determine sentiment. Only registered voters can participate in the election, and a simple majority of voters can overturn the Commission action.
LAFCO staff provide petition forms on its website. Use of the forms is not required: written protests must include an indication of which action is being protested, the date, the name of the petitioner, a signature, and the address where a voter is registered, or the address and Assessor’s Parcel Number of a landowner.