For Immediate Release
Sonoma County commits $9 million to unify and improve fire services
Santa Rosa,CA | January 26, 2022
The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously today to approve a landmark series of agreements intended to improve the effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability of fire services in Sonoma County by consolidating fire agencies and revamping the way they are funded.
As part of these agreements, the Board of Supervisors is committing $9 million to help unify and improve fire protection and emergency response services provided by independent fire agencies in unincorporated areas of the county.
“This is us putting our money where our mouths are. While we will continue to look at a sales tax and other options to fund fire services in the future, this is a commitment from our existing budget to build on our mandate for increased resilience,” said Supervisor James Gore, chair of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. “These funds will help defend the northern and eastern flanks against Diablo wind-driven fires, enhance emergency responsiveness from the coast to Highway 101, boost services and coordination in south county, and stabilize delivery in the east. The world demands this action, and we are meeting that challenge.”
At the conclusion of these actions, there will be 23 local fire agencies across Sonoma County, down from 43 that served the county and its cities in 2014, when the county launched its initiative to unify and improve fire services.
While local fire districts are funded independently and are not part of county government, the Board of Supervisors initiated negotiations with these districts and invested money to create an integrated system of fire and emergency response services for the benefit of these communities, visitors, and the county as a whole.
“This is not technically our legal responsibility, but it is our moral responsibility,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, a member of the board committee created to lead a restructuring of local fire agencies. “This represents a generational change in the way these services are delivered in Sonoma County, improving fire protection and ensuring long-term sustainability of fire services in unincorporated areas of the county.”
Despite these pivotal gains, members of the board acknowledged that additional funding is needed to adequately support a countywide system of emergency response that includes both fire protection and prevention. A new poll released by the county today found that 75 percent of voters believe it is crucial to have high-quality fire protection services, even if it means raising taxes. The poll found that 64 percent of voters would support a half-cent sales tax increase to fund fire services, just short of the two-thirds majority required to approve a tax increase. The web and telephone survey of 500 likely voters in Sonoma County was conducted Dec. 1-8 by EMC Research.
The county will continue to convene stakeholders for continued collaboration and education on the unmet needs and discuss the best way of funding fire protection and prevention in the future.
A key element of the plan will create the framework for sustainable fire and emergency services along the Sonoma County coast, which draws millions of visitors annually from across the county and around the world. Roughly 29 percent of the land in the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District is dedicated to state and county parks, which do not generate any property tax revenue, creating a funding challenge that threatened the district’s ability to serve coastal visitors and residents.
“The coast is one of the crown jewels of Sonoma County. This plan benefits everyone who lives along our coast and all of the people who visit it, providing crucial support for a fire district that delivers essential services to people from across Sonoma County,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, a member of the board committee created to lead a restructuring of local fire agencies.
The county’s concerted effort to address the stability of independent fire agencies in unincorporated areas of Sonoma County dates back to 2014, when the Board of Supervisors first launched the Fire Services Project to provide more efficient, effective and sustainable fire services.
After the 2017 fires, the Sonoma County Fire Chiefs Association analyzed deployment and response times to identify weak links and unmet needs. The analysis found benefits to consolidating volunteer fire departments and realigning responsibility for serving County Service Area (CSA) 40 territory, which was established in 1993 to provide structural fire protection services in unincorporated areas of Sonoma County that were not within a Fire Protection District, Community Services District or municipality.
Today, the Board of Supervisors approved a complex series of tax exchange and revenue sharing agreements to support consolidation of fire services, which are in various stages of review by the county Local Agency Formation Commission:
- Gold Ridge Fire Protection District: The district will annex seven volunteer fire companies in west and south Sonoma County — Ft. Ross, Camp Meeker, Bodega, Valley Ford, Two Rock, Wilmar and Lakeville — along with one CSA 40 area (Incident Response Plan 81) and the Wilmar Community Facility District. In exchange, the district will receive $4.4 million in annual base funding and the revenue generated by the Wilmar CFD, currently $131,946 a year.
County Fire District: The district will annex the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District, improving
service to heavily visited sections of the
coast that do not generate sufficient property tax revenue to sustainably support emergency services. In exchange, it will receive
$3 million in annual base
In addition, the district will annex three CSA 40 areas (IRPs 51, 56 and the western portion of IRP 61). In exchange, the district will receive $28,000 in annual base funding.
- Northern Sonoma County Fire District: The district will annex the Dry Creek-Sotoyome Community Facility District territories and three CSA 40 areas (IRPs 63, 64 and the eastern portion of 61). In exchange, the district will receive a $1.2 million in annual base funding, subject to an increase after five years, in addition to the revenue generated by the Sotoyome CFD, currently $112,849 a year.
In addition, the Board of Supervisors approved $180,000 in annual base funding for the Kenwood Fire Protection District and two annual payments of $120,000. The money will help stabilize the district, which is staffed with a combination of professional and volunteer firefighters, until it can partner with another fire agency in the future.
To fund these agreements, the county will transfer approximately $2 million annually in property taxes collected in CSA 40 areas for fire protection services once the annexation processes are completed by the county Local Agency Formation Commission. In addition, the county will direct $7.2 million in Fire Services Project funds to the districts involved in the consolidation. This includes money from the county’s General Fund budget; funding from Proposition 172, the 1993 statewide sales tax to support public safety; and the county’s Transient Occupancy Tax on overnight visitors.
All of the funding is subject to annual adjustments, tied to increases in inflation or changes in property tax revenues.
The Board of Supervisors also approved a measure today to begin collecting Transient Occupancy Tax funds on overnight visitors at Sonoma County Regional Park campgrounds. The revenue, estimated at $250,000 to $300,000 annually, will be programmed to the Fire Services Project Fund.