Consultants Outline Plan for Consolidation of Sebastopol Fire Dept with Gold Ridge
Feasibility study looked at facilities, equipment, personnel and budget to make recommendations
Facing a contentious decision about the future of Sebastopol Fire Department, the City Council hired Matrix Consulting Group to review its options and make recommendations. Its 86-page Fire Department Feasibility Study, dated January 3, 2023, was released on the City of Sebastopol website on January 19, 2023 and will be presented at a special City Council meeting on Tuesday, January 31 at 6pm via Zoom.
The consultants looked at whether to “retain the current fire department and convert to a 24/7 staffing model using career and volunteer staffing or to consolidate with the Gold Ridge Fire Protection District that already has a 24/7 staffing model.” Doing its own research and stakeholder interviews, the consultant’s feasibility study essentially supported the position of the Ad Hoc Fire Committee of the City Council. In the City Council meeting of May 17, 2023, as reported in Sebastopol Times, the Ad Hoc Fire Committee had recommended consolidation with Gold Ridge to provide supervision and 24/7 staffing in Sebastopol and ultimately upgrade the infrastructure of the fire station. (The Committee’s report and FAQ can found here.)
The initial efforts to look at the Fire Department came from concerns about the demands caused by wildfires as well as an increase in call volume and slower response times. Additionally, in the long term, the current amount of funding is inadequate to address the limitations of the current facilities and aging equipment at the fire station as well as the staff changes needed to provide more hours of service and improve response times. The Ad Hoc Fire Committee stated that the City itself could not increase the current $1.4M budget for the Fire Department and that the Fire Department was likely to need an additional $1M in funding annually, whether the department is independent or consolidated with Gold Ridge.
The proposal in May failed to gain support from all members of the City Council because of objections from the volunteers firefighters, who felt they had not been consulted, and other community members. The City Council then decided to spend the $40,000 to hire outside consultants to get more data and buy some time. Eight months or so have gone by. Since then, a City Council election was held in which all candidates voiced support for the volunteer fire fighters without really addressing consolidation. With its three new members, the City Council will now have to make what could be an unpopular decision, one that would raise taxes about $265 a year for a single-family home in Sebastopol.
The consultant’s report addressed the state of the fire station, its facilities and firefighting apparatus; the staffing model for providing 24 or 16 hour coverage as well as the mix of volunteer and career firefighters; and the need to increase taxes to pay for improvements to the fire station and the delivery of services.
The Fire Station
“The Sebastopol fire station will require an extensive review and renovation,” the report said, adding: “The station does not have the capacity to house staff on a 24-hour basis.” These are problems that need to be addressed by the City regardless of the decision around consolidation.
The station has inadequate facilities for housing firefighters for 24-hour shifts. Some of its fire trucks are getting old — after 25 years of service — and need to be replaced. The station has a leaky roof and rotting wood in its roof overhang. There is not sufficient storage space at the facility; some equipment is stored off-site at the public works garage. The fire station itself cannot be expanded easily, although adding a second story was considered a possibility.
The study concluded that the basic infrastructure of the department would need to be upgraded over several years. Under the consolidation plan, the Sebastopol fire station would continue in operation but City would still be responsible for the physical building.
Staffing or Service Delivery
The Sebastopol Fire Department “has one full-time chief, one full-time 40-hour fire engineer, and staffs the remaining positions with twenty-two (22) volunteer firefighters and six (6) Reserve Firefighters.” Personnel account “for approximately 68% of operating expenditures in 2022.”
As a volunteer fire department, firefighters are not paid staff, except for the Chief and the fire engineer. Volunteer firefighters can receive a “nominal fee” or stipends for their shifts. For example, staff can be paid a $200 stipend for an 8-hour shift at the fire station. Stipends cannot exceed 20% of what would be paid to a permanent or salaried firefighter. The consultant’s study found that over the past four years the stipends paid to volunteer staff members “may have exceeded the limits set forth” by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
The fire department also receives payment from the State of California for its support during the wildfires, which goes for use of equipment as well as the firefighters. For some volunteer firefighters in 2021, the outside income exceeded the amount paid by the department. For instance, one volunteer firefighter made $129,015 in 2021 — $52K from Sebastopol and $75K from the State. The next four made incomes that totaled $80,000, $72,000, $60,000 and $45,000.
Carrying on the tradition of a volunteer fire department seems important for Sebastopol, and the viability of the department. However, staffing a fire department 24/7 with only volunteers is difficult, according to the study. It also takes volunteers about twice as long to respond in an emergency because they must first go to the fire station before heading out to the incident.
The study recommended a mix of paid staff and volunteers under consolidation to provide 24/7 coverage, which would improve response time in emergencies. Consolidation is likely to have an impact on Sebastopol’s volunteer firefighters, and the stipends paid to them, but volunteers continue to be an important part of staffing.
The City of Sebastopol spends 11% of its $11.3M budget on the Fire Department. The City’s approved budget for 2022-2023 allocates $1,426,250 for the Fire Department.
In contrast, the Police Department accounts for 51% of the budget, which largely goes to support its 20 full-time employees and additional part-time employees.
The study concludes that the budget will grow over the next four years with “an annual increase of 10.3%,” rising to $2,140,750 in the 2027 – 2028 fiscal year. The increase would require 20% of the City’s budget in the future, which City Council members have said is not an option.
The study states that a property tax is necessary if consolidation is approved. Sebastopol residents would have to contribute an equivalent amount as other residences served by the Gold Ridge Fire District. The study doesn’t outline specifically that such a tax would also be needed if the department were to remain independent, yet it seems logical that a tax would be needed either way.
Gold Ridge Fire Protection District
The Gold Ridge Fire Protection District, which covers areas west and south of Sebastopol, is much larger in size and in budget. It provides 24/7 service to approximately 20,500 residents in an area of 75 square miles. Its budget is just over $5M. Tax revenue represents approximately 63% of the total revenues; revenue from intergovernmental services such as North Bay Fire provides about $1.3M.
A seven-member Board of Directors, elected to four-year terms, governs the fire district. The paid staff include a Fire Chief, 3 Battalion Chiefs, and 12 firefighters. There are over 50 volunteer firefighters. It has three fire stations: Hessel, Twin Hills and Freestone. Gold Ridge Fire Protection District and Sebastopol Fire Department already work together to provide mutual assistance.
In February 2022, at the request of the City of Sebastopol, the Gold Ridge Fire Protection District provided a proposal for the consolidation of the Sebastopol Fire Department and the Gold Ridge Fire Protection District. Gold Ridge already operates on a 24/7 service model. The proposed staffing for the Sebastopol Fire Station was four career Captains, three career Engineers, and a stipend volunteer. This would create a three-person unit on a 24-hour basis 365 days a year. Sebastopol would no longer have its own Fire Chief.
This consolidation plan would require that Sebastopol residents approve an assessment of $265 annually for a typical single-family home and $100 for additional structures. That tax is projected to generate approximately $1,111,058 for the combined district.
The general plan for consolidation as presented by the Ad Hoc Fire Committee in May 2022 has not changed much. The plan created by the consultants outlined an implementation plan for the consolidation in four phases, as follows (in their words):
Phase 1 would consist of contracting with the Gold Ridge Fire Protection District to provide administrative services and providing oversight to the consolidation process. Begin to design a plan to renovate the fire station to house emergency services staff.
Phase 2 includes staffing the fire station for a 16-hour period daily Monday through Friday. Staffing the station from 6 am to 10 pm would provide service to approximately 63% of the call volume in the City of Sebastopol.
Phase 3 includes the development of the documentation necessary to file with LAFCO for the consolidation and annexation of the City of Sebastopol into the Gold Ridge Fire Protection District. Timing for this process is unknown, however with both organizations supporting the consolidation the timing may be shortened.
Phase 4 begins with the consolidation approval from LAFCO and continues with the renovations to the fire station. Once the renovations are complete, the funding in place as a result of the annexation/consolidation, the staffing model would change from the 16-hour Monday through Friday to the 24 hour 7 days a week staffing model.
City Manager Larry McLaughlin at the May 17th meeting last year estimated that once approved, the consolidation process would take about a year to complete.
Note: The members of Ad Hoc Fire Committee were then-Mayor Patrick Slayter, Councilmember Diana Rich, City Manager/Attorney Larry McLaughlin, Assistant City Manager/City Clerk Mary Gourley and then Fire Chief Bill Braga. During the May 17th meeting last year, the report from the Committee was presented with the recommendation to begin the process of consolidation. During public comment, members of the department’s volunteer firefighters objected to the plan, and said that they had been left out of the process. The committee responded that Fire Chief Bill Braga’s presence on the committee as head of the department showed that the department had been included. Two separate meetings had been held with volunteer firefighters, the second of which was May 12, 2022, and was recorded. The recording of the two-hour meeting has not been made public (to my knowledge) but apparently edited portions of the video were circulated to discredit the City Council members who participated. After hearing the comments from volunteer firefighters in the City Council meeting, Chief Braga changed his mind and said he no longer supported the current consolidation plan. The City Council decided to use money already appropriated for consultants and hire them to do an independent study and provide more data for making a decision in the future. Chief Braga retired at the end of 2022.
Please read the Fire Department Feasibility Study for a fuller explanation of the plan and the alternatives to consolidation.
Tuesday’s special city council meeting will open another round in the discussion about the future of the Sebastopol Fire Department as its own independent entity or as part of a larger district.
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