“What we’re asking for is a meaningful and desired improvement in the level of service we provide,” Sonoma Valley Fire Chief Steve Akre told the Index-Tribune. “A reasonable tax that provides that desired service.”
The “reasonable tax” Akre is referring to will appear on Sonoma Valley ballots Nov. 6 under the guise of Measures T, Y and X – a trio of similar parcel taxes to bolster the response capabilities for the Glen Ellen, Valley of the Moon and Schell-Vista fire departments.
Under which fire district one lives will determine which measure voters tick on their ballots; the taxes need two-thirds approval to pass.
All three measures propose a $200 per parcel tax on residential properties. For commercial properties, the ask is 10 cents per square foot in the Glen Ellen and Valley of the Moon districts, and 14 cents per square foot in Schell-Vista. The taxes would generate about $350,000, $1.5 million and $900,000 in the three districts, respectively.
These are the first parcel taxes for which the fire districts have asked – and the timing is right.
Obviously, with the 2017 North Bay fires still fresh on people’s minds and in their hearts, the importance of reliable emergency response has never been clearer. But it goes beyond that, say fire officials. More revenue is needed to enable fire districts to thrive in changing times.
Or, as Akre puts it: “Fire service in Sonoma County is evolving.”
“We don’t have the ability to rely on volunteers like we used to,” explains Akre.
Akre cites the high cost of living, an aging community and stricter training requirements for the dearth of willing fire volunteers. But, whatever the reasons are, this parcel tax is like that 1980s U.S. Marine’s recruitment drive: They’re looking for a few good men. And women.
Currently the Sonoma Valley Fire Authority has 47 full-time staff, including firefighters, administrators, mechanics, etc. There about 40 to 45 active volunteers.
The bulk of the revenue from the parcel taxes would go toward beefing up staff and paying a stipend for volunteers trained at a high enough level to allow them to accompany firefighters on engine calls. They want each call to include at least two full-time first responders (one of which is a paramedic) and one “stipend volunteer.” (In the VOM district, they want four responders on every call.)
The revenues from the taxes would also fund more educational outreach in the community – so property owners can take measures to defend against future fires – and ensure that new firefighters are trained as paramedics, as well.
Outside of state funds, which tend to be static, a parcel tax is the only mechanism to increase revenues for the fire departments, says Akre.
If last year’s savage wildfires weren’t lesson enough, the ongoing climate dryness, increase in fuel density and continuous human encroachment into county outlands all but guarantee the next great fire will be sooner than we expect – and more than we can handle.
No one plans for emergencies. But the question voters must ask themselves: When they next call for the fire department to come out – do they want two trained responders? Three? Or even four?
We recommend a “yes” on Measures T, Y and X.