The Case for Fire Dept Consolidation Falls Apart. What's Next?
Third Ad-Hoc Fire Committee Approved
About 100 people participated in a last Tuesday’s, a special Study Session of the City Council that focused on the presentation by Matrix Consulting Group that recommended consolidation of the Sebastopol Fire Department with the Graton Fire Protection District. Nearing the end of the three-and-a-half hour meeting, the opponents of consolidation who had been on offense in public comment and the City Council who had been on defense most of the night ended up seemingly on the same side, perhaps without realizing it. At the three-hour mark, Councilmember Diana Rich said: “No one on this City Council is marching towards consolidation. I certainly am not. I am open to all possibilities.” It wasn’t clear that the opponents of consolidation realized that support for the plan was waning over the course of the evening and that they had, in effect, won. They remained upset.
The one thing they really wanted and were denied by Mayor Neysa Hinton was the opportunity to hear at length from Interim Fire Chief Jack Piccinini once the consultants finished their presentation. The Mayor said firmly that she would stick to the agenda established for this meeting, which did not include having Chief Piccinini speak. This infuriated members of the public who described Chief Piccinini in their comments as a “well-respected firefighter” and “expert in these matters.” They wanted him to have his turn. In her last comment of the evening on this issue, Mayor Hinton said that she had to follow protocol: “I’m sure we will hear from Jack Piccinini in the future, but that will not be tonight.”
As the consultants responded to questions from the members of the City Council, their answers gradually undermined their written recommendations. Councilmember Diana Rich said she was struggling to see whether the budget for consolidation offered any savings from remaining independent. “The total cost was relatively similar,” was the reply from the lead consultant, Robert Finn. In response to other questions, he indicated that the study didn’t look at all possible options; their scope of work was fairly specific. When asked what Sebastopol would get from consolidation with Gold Ridge, he answered: “they’d get their fire chief and battalion chiefs and increase the pool of volunteers that they could draw from.” It wasn’t a compelling answer. However, it spoke to a key assumptions of theirs that Sebastopol will have difficulty providing 24/7 staffing with its current number of volunteers.
In response, Interim Fire Chief Piccinini was able to add was that 7 new volunteer firefighters had been recruited in November. He also said that there were some problems with stipends for volunteer firefighters, which the study had pointed out. He along with City Manager Larry McGlauglin would be working on it as a separate issue.
Even with consolidation, the City of Sebastopol would still own and operate its own fire station and be responsible for improvements to physical infrastructure. Separate funding would be required for the necessary upgrades. The consultants thought that the City could pursue grants to pay for the upgrades. But the taxes raised through consolidation would not be available to improve the fire station and its equipment unless that had been negotiated. If Sebastopol had its own parcel tax, those funds could be designated for physical improvements as well as service and staffing.
Also, under consolidation, the tax revenue produced by Sebastopol was projected to create a surplus and there was discussion about how the surplus would be used. No one wanted to see it just go to the Gold Ridge Fire Protection District when there were needs such as improving the fire station.
The public commenters were entirely negative. One person asked what problem consolidation was trying to solve. Many advised that the process be slowed down, expecting that the Council was preparing to approve the consolidation plan; the agenda for the Study Session was explicit that a decision was not to be made in this meeting. Some believed that the consultants were expected to recommend consolidation because they had not been asked to look more broadly at other options.
Many citizens complained about errors in the Feasibility Study which mostly had to do with stipends. Apparently, the consultants had been given the wrong information and they were getting new information to make corrections. The consultants promised to make corrections and issue a new version of the report.
So what’s next? There is no current plan that explains how the Sebastopol Fire Department can address the lack of funding and the need for upgrading the facilities and the equipment of the fire department as well as provide for 24/7 staffing. Indeed, it is expected that Chief Piccinini will have some thoughts on this matter and he will be part of planning going forward.
The one outcome of the meeting was to form yet another Ad Hoc Fire Committee, which was approved in a 3-2 vote. The members of that committee and its charter will be considered at the February 7th City Council Meeting. This will be the third Ad Hoc Fire Committee in as many years. (Neysa Hinton served on the first committee and Diana Rich served on the second).
Jill McLewis who along with Sandi Mauer voted against the motion to form the Ad Hoc Fire Committee said in the meeting: “It would be good for us to actually hear a report from the chief before we actually move to that next step, if that is the next step that we decide.” She added: “Hearing the public say that they feel like they haven't been heard, things have been rushed in the past, and maybe with this new council, we need to turn over a new leaf and honor what they're saying.”
In an email Councilmember Maurer explained her voting against the Ad Hoc Fire Committee: “I didn’t vote for the ad hoc because I felt we, as a full council, should explore all the options in terms of next steps including hearing a report or presentation from our Interim Fire Chief Piccinini. However, all options and next steps can be taken up by the ad hoc committee if the council agrees to create it!”
On a Tax
If consolidation were approved, Sebastopol residents would be required to pay the same tax as other residents in the Gold Ridge Fire Protection District. (It was estimated at $265 for a parcel with a single home.) Because consolidation would happen through annexation, there would be no vote on the tax. (One might think that’s a good thing from a consultant’s point of view but it was a red flag for many pubic commenters.) One person said he could live with a tax but you have to make the case for it and then let us vote; he felt that the case for consolidation had not been made and he didn’t like that it could proceed without voter approval.
There did seem to be an acknowledgement by the City Council and many commenters that the Fire Department in Sebastopol has been underfunded at 11% of the city’s budget compared to 20% in other cities. Doing nothing is not an option.
However, the plan to keep the Fire Department local and independent will likely require a parcel tax, which would require an election. Councilmember Stephen Zollman, who made comments in the meeting about a proposed parcel tax, clarified his remarks in email: “No matter how this gets resolved, the department will need a substantial amount of money. One way to raise this money is through a parcel tax that we initiate and that is why I requested our staff to determine the process by which this could happen and the amount needed to get it on the ballot.”
Of course, the voters could reject a tax. Then what?
Comments from Diana Rich
Diana Rich, a member of the second Ad Hoc Fire Committee, has had a change of mind on consolidation. I asked her to share her thoughts with the Sebastopol Times:
I’m in a different place now than I was on May 17 of last year, when the Ad Hoc Committee recommended consolidation. We had gone through so many meetings, with former Fire Chief Bill Braga contributing, as well as City Manager Larry McLaughlin, Assistant City Manager Mary Gourley, and then-Mayor Patrick Slayter. We collected information and considered options and costs, and processed it all to the best of our abilities, in order to make a recommendation to the full City Council. All of us on the Ad Hoc Committee agreed going into that May 17 meeting that consolidation was the best move. But as I constantly remind people, an Ad Hoc Committee does not make decisions. It does the tasks assigned and reports back to the Council, with the final decision left to the full City Council. A number of meaningful things happened for me during that May 17 meeting. One was that Chief Braga withdrew his support for the idea of consolidation, and the other was that my colleagues advocated strongly for a neutral independent study. And yes, I voted with my colleagues to support that third-party study. And yes, I still feel that supporting the study was absolutely the right decision.
We all hoped that the study would give us clear answers and provide a basis for making a final decision. However, as should have been clear to those who listened to my questions and comments at the Study Session on January 31st, for me the study did not provide the hoped-for certainty. It gave us a lot more information than we had before it was completed. But so much still remains to be answered, about plans and costs for our facilities and our aging fire trucks, and yes, there are still questions about the best operating structure (and related costs, strategies, and timelines) to meet the needs of the community.
I do not personally have the information I need to vote on the key question here: Should we retain our independent fire department or should we consolidate? After reading the Report (very carefully, multiple times), listening to the presentation, and also (two times in the last week) talking with our current Fire Chief Jack Piccinini, the only certainty for me is that more work needs to be done and all options are on the table.
I will not be advocating for consolidation at this time, nor will I be advocating for an independent fire department. I will be advocating for a process to answer the remaining questions, address the immediate fire and emergency service needs of our fire department, and chart the right course for reliable future fire and emergency services. For me, that process starts anew with the formation of a new Ad Hoc Committee, with the full City Council deciding who should be on it and what tasks it should take on.
She also added that she hopes the new members of the City Council will serve on the Ad Hoc Fire Committee and do the work that remains to be done.
All City Council members were asked for comment on the meeting and three replied.
A video of the meeting can be found here.
See also last week’s: Consultants Outline Plan for Consolidation of Sebastopol Fire Dept with Gold Ridge
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