Half-cent ‘fire services’ sales tax heading to March ballot

Sonoma County voters will decide in March if they are willing to pay more in sales tax to boost funding for fire services in the county.

County supervisors voted last week to place a half-cent sales tax increase on the March 2020 ballot following a public hearing on Nov. 12 when the resolution called “Sonoma County Wildfire Prevention, Emergency Alert and Response Sales Tax Measure” was introduced. The increase is anticipated to raise an additional $51 million annually, earmarked for fire services.

“I support this proposed half-cent sales tax as a funding mechanism to professionalize, train, staff and equip our hardworking firefighters so essential to us two years ago, and now this year with the Kincade fire,” said 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin.

The funds would supplement existing funding for “disaster alerts, vegetation management, fire suppression and fire-fighting services and wildfire prevention provided by the County of Sonoma and 38 fire agencies,” according to the county ordinance. The funds would be divided according to size and need of the agencies, which are likely to be consolidated as part of the plan.

“This revenue supports our fire districts coming together collaboratively, perhaps as a re-organization first, and then future consolidation,” Gorin said. “Regional models, while retaining community identity, are essential to prepare for the 21st century of firefighting.”

The tax would fund about 200 additional firefighters throughout the county, bolstering the capabilities of fire agencies to be prepared to respond to emergencies. Following the 2017 Sonoma complex fires, fire agencies won approval and funding to boost staff preemptively during Red Flag warnings meaning that more personnel are working during the time of heightened alert and fire danger.

The Red Flag “upstaffing” was part of the success in battling the Kincade fire, said Windsor Fire Chief Mark Heine, at the Nov. 5 supervisors meeting, and the funding from the sales tax would make the staffing levels the norm, rather than under special occurences.

“We shouldn’t have to surge our staffing to meet these kind of threats, that staffing should be on duty all the time county-wide,” Heine said.

Steve Akre, fire chief of Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority, said in a previous interview with the Index-Tribune that increasing the number of firefighters per engine company is critical to “meeting national standards for response.”

Though the measure to increase funding for emergencies has been in the works since 2015, the timing on the supervisors’ agenda was timely as firefighters battled the Kincade fire.

“I think what just happened to our county shows that this isn’t a one-off,” said 5th District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins at the Nov. 5 meeting. “We are in an era of catastrophic wildfires, and we need to plan accordingly.”

The sales tax revenue would be used to pay for more capital expenditures such as more stations, sirens on emergency vehicles, enhancement of the Wireless Emergency Alert system, SoCo Alert, and Nixel notifications and other alert and warning services, and sires on stations.

The measure would support hiring seven new fire inspectors to provide vegetation management services and property inspections to ensure property owners are complying with vegetation management standards.

The measure would fund a regional crew to perform vegetation management fire prevention services to mitigate fire hazards by reducing fuel, creating and maintaining fire breaks and reinforcing evacuation routes.

Akre said finding volunteer firefighters, which fire departments throughout the county have traditionally relied on in the past, has become more difficult to recruit and retain due to more work demands on volunteers. Additionally retaining volunteer and career firefighters has become more difficult over time due to housing costs, he said. The measure would assist agencies in recruitment and retention purposes.

Through LAFCO (Local Agency Formation Commission) and county supervisor oversight, the funds may also be used for regional equipment and facilities’ needs.

For transparency and fiscal accountability the Board of Supervisors will establish an oversight committee to review the expenditures of the funds.

The cost to put the measure on the March ballot is expected to be about $400,000, according to the county, and requires a two-third majority to pass.

Voters in the Valley of the Moon rejected a tax measure in 2018 that would raise funds for fire services in their area. The measure sought a $200 annual tax per residential parcel, which lost by 11 votes. It needed 66.6 percent to pass and garnered 66.5 percent.

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