Conflicting visions for the fire department lead to a crisis in emergency services
Piccinini accuses the council of inaction; the mayor accuses him of obstruction.
Two days before Jack Piccinini stepped down as Sebastopol’s Fire Chief, he sent a letter titled “Fire and Emergency Response Crisis,” dated Nov. 1, to every member of the Sebastopol City Council, to other fire departments and county officials, and to the Press Democrat, which ran a front-page story on it in their November 26 edition.
The gist of his letter—and the fire department staffing report it references—is that the volunteer firefighter model that Sebastopol has relied on for years is breaking down and that this breakdown is endangering both lives and property. (Read Piccinini’s letter and the fire department staffing report here.)
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There have been eight incidents this year—three in January, three in February, and two in October—where the fire department either couldn’t respond or couldn’t respond in a timely manner to emergency situations.
“As your Fire Chief and a subject matter expert, I must continue to state that the city is not meeting the fundamental responsibility of providing adequate public safety specific to fire and emergency responses to its citizens,” he wrote in the letter.
Piccinini is calling on the city to immediately release funds from its reserve to shore up the fire department until some longer-term source of funding can be developed.
Piccinini’s letter comes as the city continues to wrestle with how to solve its $1.67 million deficit this year—and a prediction of increasingly worse deficits to come. Last week, the city council declared a fiscal emergency, and two weeks ago, the city declared a hiring freeze.
“I am very aware of the city’s financial challenges, but those challenges can no longer be used as a reason not to take immediate action,” Piccinini wrote in his letter.
A bone of contention
Here’s the problem: the city council has been trying to do something about fire department funding for the last five years, but their efforts have been at cross purposes with the members of the fire department they’ve been trying to save.
As such, they’ve been blocked every step of the way by the former Fire Chief himself, by the fire volunteers, by some very vocal fire department supporters and finally by two members of the current city council, who came into office pledging support for an independent fire department, as opposed to consolidation with surrounding fire departments.
“I have been beating this drum the whole freaking time,” a clearly frustrated Mayor Neysa Hinton told the Sebastopol Times, referring to her efforts to find a steady source of funding for the fire department. “Jack has blocked us because he wanted an independent fire department, and they ran city council members to try and make that happen.” (Note: Hinton is referring here to the triad of Oliver Noble, Dennis Colthurst, and now Councilmember Jill McLewis. Councilmember Sandra Maurer also supported the concept of a independent fire department during her election run.)
That tactic has been successful. Consolidation has, for the moment, been shelved for the sake of keeping the peace.
The problem is that relations between the fire department and the council have become so fraught that even efforts to fund an independent fire department—like Mayor Hinton’s effort this July to put a sales tax on the November 2023 ballot to fund emergency services in the city—have run into ongoing opposition.
A short history of council efforts to solve fire department funding
Where Piccinini sees council neglect, Hinton sees a long history of skirmishes over how to solve the financial challenge of funding the fire department.
Here’s a brief history of the last few years’ efforts:
Hinton was on the first City Council Fire Ad Hoc Committee back in 2017 with former councilmember Una Glass. They were looking into consolidation, but decided to wait until then Fire Chief Bill Braga retired.
Next came the second Fire Ad Hoc Committee in 2021-2022, consisting of then Mayor Patrick Slayter, Councilmember Diana Rich and Braga. Slayter and Rich came out strong for consolidation with the Gold Ridge Fire Department. (Braga dissented.) This recommendation was opposed by the volunteer firefighters, who accused Slayter and Rich of 1) not consulting with them; and 2) as non-firefighters, of not having any experience or expertise on the topic. Fellow councilmembers criticized their report for not delving into all the options available, not just consolidation.
In an attempt to get that broader view, the city paid for an independent study on the Sebastopol Fire Department (the Matrix Report), which cost $40,000. This report covered more ground and also made a tepid recommendation for consolidation—though it noted that sustaining the fire department, consolidated or independent, was going to be almost equally expensive. Once again, in public comment during council meetings, the volunteer firefighters ripped this report to shreds—even though they were the ones who, at a previous council meeting, had demanded a paid report by fire services experts.
Next came the third and current Fire Ad Hoc Committee with Mayor Hinton, Councilmember Jill McLewis, and Chief Piccinini. They have ostensibly been working on a new Fire Services Report. (In September, Piccinini released his own Fire Services report—separate from the Fire Ad Hoc.) The city planned a Fire Services town hall and then cancelled it at the last minute. They settled instead for a special meeting of the city council on the issue. (Piccinini’s Fire Services report was not mentioned.)
Piccinini did give the council credit for funding an additional fire engineer position during budget talks in June, but then he never hired one, though he did interview people for the position.
As noted above, in July, Mayor Hinton pushed to get a sales tax for emergency services on the November 2023 ballot. This effort was criticized by the fire department—and Councilmember Maurer—as an attempt to make an end-run around (or really jump in front of) the upcoming County Fire Sales Tax measure on the March 2024 ballot. Hinton’s effort to put a half-cent sales tax on the November 2023 ballot went down to defeat with Maurer and McLewis voting against it. McLewis said Hinton’s effort felt rushed and not well thought out.
The council's most recent efforts to put a sales tax on the March ballot ran afoul of the same argument, with McLewis’ and Maurer’s dissent dooming the effort. Both said they questioned the city staff’s numbers regarding the city’s financial status.
So when Piccinini writes, as he did in the November 1 letter, that “no other efforts have been considered in dealing with the issues as recommended in the reports provided,” he’s both right and wrong. Clearly, enormous amounts of council time and energy have been spent on this issue. They just haven’t been spent pursuing the program Jack Piccinini laid out for them.
No doubt the problems Piccinini describes in his letter are real, but they might have been solved by now—in one way or another—had the two camps found a way to work together.
New sources of funding for the fire department
At the last council meeting, the council agreed (in McLewis’s absence) to take another look at a half-cent sales tax for the November 2024 ballot, though whether that will be targeted at emergency services or not is anyone’s best guess. And even if it did pass, the money wouldn’t arrive immediately.
“For our sales tax in November 2024, we would not receive the benefits until well into the next year,” Councilmember Stephen Zollman said. “At that point we are less than 18 months before July 1, 2026 (the date when we will run out of money).”
If the Sonoma County Fire Protection Sales Tax measure passes in March 2024, Sebastopol is estimated to receive $1.1 million for its fire department, with the first of that money coming in six months after the election.
The question is, as Piccinini points out, what happens in the meantime?
Can Sebastopol rely on neighboring departments to take up the slack?
Councilmember Diana Rich feels that until the city can find a sustainable source of funding, the Sebastopol Fire Department can depend on mutual aid from Goldridge and Graton Fire districts in those rare cases where Sebastopol can’t muster a timely response.
“It’s not like we’re an isolated rural district with no other fire departments around to help,” she said. “The fact of the matter is we live in a very organized emergency management environment, where all of these fire districts have very cooperatively put together mutual aid agreements. They all support each other, which is why in those incidents when Jack was concerned, we did have the amazing support of other fire districts, just like we support them.”
A section of Piccinini’s letter was devoted to the strain that Sebastopol Fire Department’s lack of funding had on surrounding departments. Fire Chief Bill Bullard of the Graton Fire Protection District said Piccinini had a point.
“We obviously would like to see Sebastopol have 24/7 firefighter coverage. They're busier than they should be for an all-volunteer department with one career staff member,” Bullard said. “Will we back them up? Absolutely. If they're not able to put an engine on the road, are we going to go? Absolutely.”
In fact, according to Shepley Schroth-Cary of the Gold Ridge Fire Protection District, both Graton and Gold Ridge are called out automatically every time there’s a structure fire in Sebastopol (and vice versa). There is no automatic callout for medical calls, he said.
Graton’s Bullard said he agrees with Piccinini that there is a potential cost to being called out of one’s district.
“If we send an engine to Sebastopol and then we have somebody that goes into cardiac arrest in Graton, we’ve now compromised coverage in Graton to support Sebastopol. It's a what-if game, if you will. You hope that the two call types don't ever overlap, but it happens,” he said.
And the few extra minutes it takes a neighboring department to get to a fire makes a real difference. Bullard said this is somethhing he’s noticed within his own department.
“We moved from volunteer to career [firefighters] three years ago. And I have seen a dramatic improvement in how quickly we get a fire under control and it doesn't build. Cutting out those four to five minutes of getting people to the station to get the engine on the road…I have been very impressed at how cutting those four to five minutes has saved significant property damage and limited fires ability to take over a house.”
Gold Ridge’s Schroth-Cary hopes Sebastopol will find its way to adding more fulltime firefighter positions.
“I don't want to appear critical of the firefighters and want to be clear that they're the best volunteer fire department I know of and so they should be commended for that, but I just believe the model is not meeting the needs of the city anymore.”
Where it stands
The Sebastopol City Council shouldn’t have sat on Piccinini’s letter—that much is clear. Now that it’s out in the world—in the most public and embarrassing way possible—they may be forced to deal with it—and perhaps that was the point of the letter all along.
For her part, Mayor Hinton is still fuming.
“Sending a letter out in the final days of employment just shows what Ex-Chief Jack Piccinini did not get done,” she said in an email to the Sebastopol Times, “and in my opinion, he had every opportunity to support us and our city to guide us to find and implement solutions. I would say this is not working in a collaborative way with the city or others and is absolutely the opposite of being transparent and solving issues for our entire city.”
Pique aside, Piccinini’s challenge to the council—to provide some kind of bridge funding for the fire department—is the big issue they’ll need to deal with next.
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