Sonoma Fire Department Merger Likely to Move Ahead

Proposal would meld the administrative functions of the two departments. Fire services were already consolidated through a 2002 Joint Powers Agreement.

Sonoma City representatives and Valley of the Moon Fire District officials are ramping up negotiations around a plan to completely unify the two neighboring fire departments, and say they hope to reach an agreement by July 1, the start of the upcoming fiscal year.

Officials from both districts champion the proposed arrangement as a cost-saving measure that they say lacks any foreseeable downside.

Though discussion to unify the two departments began last year, the move would complete a process begun in 2002,  when the respective firefighting operations for Sonoma and Valley of the Moon were combined to form the Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority under a "joint powers agreement,"

Under that agreement, Sonoma has retained its single fire station and one fully staffed fire engine, while Valley of the Moon has kept two staffed engines at two different fire stations (it also has a third station that houses equipment for a group of volunteer firefighters); both also have additional engines and other emergency response vehicles reserved for high-level emergencies, according to Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority Chief Phillip Garcia. He said the joint powers agreement has allowed seamless cooperation between the two districts.

"It's extremely economocial and provides better service to the city," Garcia said. "Because the two sides are together, we have more resources to respond to any one incident."

The only elements left separate under the joint powers agreement were the administrative functions of each department. The arrangement under consideration now would combine those governing bodies – which oversee matters related to insurance, equipment orders, fundraising and other budget issues – to make the two departments a single, unified structure from top to bottom.

“It was from day one a metamorphosis that was supposed to continue to evolve,”  Garcia said. “We've done a strategic plan, and talks are now about finishing the administrative process and joining together as one department. We hope to have some kind of a decision by the end of the fiscal year.”

Sources say cost savings could arise from, among other things, a simpliefied managment structure, bulk purchases of equipment, bulk insurance policy purchasing, and increased eligibility for federal and state grant money typically reserved for large scale fire operations.

Garcia said combining the departments' administrative functions would likely take four to six months if an agreement is reached. He also said there would be no possibility of layoffs because “we're so lean and efficient already, we wouldn't be able to continue providing the same level of service (with fewer employees).”

According to Sonoma Councilmember Ken Brown, the deliberating body on the matter – which includes representatives from the Sonoma City government, a Valley of the Moon board of advisers, the Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority brass and the firefighters union – has several options for how to proceed. Either Sonoma can incorporate Valley of the Moon's administrative functions,Valley of the Moon can incorporate Sonoma's, or the deal could be scrapped altogether.

But Garcia said moving the Valley's administrative branch to Sonoma is a long shot at best. He said that, if any deal is reached, it will entail contracting Sonoma's administrative services out to the Valley of the Moon Fire District.

“It's almost impossible for them to assume liabilities from Valley of the Moon,” he said. “The City of Sonoma is two square miles and we're 27 square miles; they'd have to assume all of that responsibility for all the engines and stations in the area and their insurance carrier is unable to do that.”

Garcia said about $9 million a year is currently spent between the two districts on fire services, with each one bearing roughly half of that cost. He said both districts would save money under the new proposal, but that he couldn't specify how much until the terms of an agreement were in place.

Sonoma Fire Division Chief Spencer Andreis said Sonoma would still have to pay operational expsenses related to firefighting  -- such as the maintenance of "capital assets" (the firehouse, service engines, etc.) and the costs of deploying units for local calls -- but would be exempt from all costs relating to employees if it outsourced its fire services. Those costs include things like  salaries, retirement benefits, health care expenses and workers' compensation insurance, he said.

For Sonoma, the one possible drawback to outsourcing the town's fire services would be a partial loss of autonomy -- city officials would have to seek the Valley of the Moon Fire District's approval for any desired changes to the town's fire operations, according to Andreis. But he said the lack of direct oversight was unlikely to be a significant hindrance.

"If they want any changes of service they'd have to make a formal request (to the Valley of the Moon Fire District)," Andreis said. "But they'll still have their input into what their service levels are, and both sides are going to work together to meet each other's objectives."

In 2004, Sonoma contracted its police services out to the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office. The decision generated considerable controversy at the time, but town officials now largely agree that it was a smart move that saved money and actually enhanced public safety by providing better access to critical resources like helicopters, bomb squads and Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams.

According to City Manager Linda Kelly, outsourcing its police services saved the city $400,000 a year for the first several years of the program. She added that the addition of two new law enforcement personnel (made at the behest of the City Council), coupled with cost increases related to salaries, benefits and insurance, make it difficult to compare current costs for policing to costs incurred before contracting with the county, but that some level of savings is still being generated.

"The resources of the County allow for the filling of staff vacancies much more quickly, and reduce our overtime costs for staff coverage for vacations, workers comp injuries, court appointments, etc," she said. " It has been a beneficial relationship and a seamless provision of services through the contract."

Unlike the proposed fire agreement, Sonoma's agreement with the County Sherrif's Office requires the city to pay virtually all expenses related to local law enforcement -- including salaries and benefits for employees who work in the jurisdiction, according to the Law Enforcement Services Agreement contract between the two sides. The level of those expenditures is determined by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, but the alloction of resources and other tactical decisions are made jointly by the Sheriff's Department and the Sonoma City Counil, according to the contract.

The success of that experiment is a consideration for those deliberating the soundess of doing something similar with town's fire department, according to Brown.

“In a lot of ways, this is a very similar concept, where there's an economy of scale and savings to be had by doing this,” Brown said. "I voted against contracting with the Sheriff's Department and I regret that vote. Since we have contracted with the Sheriff's we have saved money and, more importantly, improved the qualify of public safety for the citizens of Sonoma.”

According to the Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority website, the territory covered under the joint powers agreement covers 31.5 square miles and a resident population of about 33,000. According to the website, the Valley of the Moon Fire District is a fully autonomous "special district" established specifically for fire protection, and has the authority to levy taxes, sell bonds and finance capital improvements. The communities that fall within the Valley of the Moon Fire District include Boyes Hot Springs, El Verano, Fetters Hot Springs, Agua Caliente, Diamond-A, Temelec and Seven Flags.

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