|Calls from SSU upset fire district
On Friday, Feb 1, at 10:26 p.m., a 911 call from a Sonoma State dorm requests emergency service for a student who is suffering from alcohol poisoning.
One engine and three firefighters respond from Rancho Adobe Fire District (RAFD) Station 2 in Penngrove, because Station 1 in Cotati is closed that day.
They transfer the student to an ambulance, which arrives shortly after. The estimated cost to make emergency services available to everyone in the district, and respond in a timely manner is $1,500 per call. But Sonoma State will pay zero dollars for this service.
According to Battalion Chief Steve Davidson, a similar incident occurred on Feb 6, and another on Feb 10. In all, there are nearly 200 of these calls every year. Of the 2,000 calls
RAFD responds to annually, 10 percent involve SSU students, and 80 percent of those calls are for alcohol-related incidents.
“It’s rookies. Underage students who think they can drink show up every fall, every spring,” Davidson said.
Students drinking might seem amusing, as it’s one of the rituals of collegiate life, but the cost of providing emergency services to the 10,500 students, faculty, and staff of SSU is no laughing matter to the fire district, which has been forced to close one of its three fire stations every day due to budget constraints.
Because one station is closed on a rotating basis, when the district responds to an alcohol emergency at the campus, fires, accidents, medical emergencies, and other off-campus 911 calls are left to be serviced by the only other station that remains open. That means less coverage is available for the RAFD’s jurisdiction.
For 2013, RAFD faced a shortfall of $387,000, and turned to the taxpayers for relief with Measure Z, an initiative that would have raised property taxes by $60 per year per household in the district for eight years. The measure needed a two-thirds majority vote, but fell short, gaining only 62.8 percent.
The measure’s worst performance was in the precinct encompassing SSU, where voting was 38 percent for and 62 percent against. Davidson believes that if two-thirds of voters in that area had voted yes, the measure would have passed, and all three stations would be open today. But he said the university did not allow RAFD to campaign on the campus.
This was not the first time RAFD has been disappointed in SSU’s response. In 2009, the district approached Assistant to the President and Chief Financial Officer Larry Furukawa-Schlereth, requesting SSU contribute approximately $200,000 per year towards the cost of emergency services. The request was denied. Schlereth, according to Davidson, said he would like to help, but was prohibited by state law.
When pressed for details, Susan Kashack, a spokesperson for SSU, said, “This isn't an issue for our campus. The state Constitution exempts CSU from payment of property taxes and special assessments, and that a voluntary payment would be a gift of public funds which is not allowed.”
Davidson feels otherwise. When hearing this statement, he responded, “That is completely bogus. Cal Poly is in the CSU system, and they pay San Luis Obispo between $400,000-$500,000 a year for emergency service support. That’s a lot cheaper than building their own department.”
Davidson challenged the statement that one state agency cannot tax another.
“Every time we buy a $400,000 fire engine, we pay full sales tax,” he said.
SSU faced financial struggles of its own with a deficit of $4.6 million last year. However, the university’s current operating budget is $91 million, and its endowment is $32 million.
Davidson contends even if SSU paid RAFD $200,000 a year for service, it would still be a bargain compared to creating an on-campus fire department. He estimates it would cost approximately $1 million in staff to operate each piece of emergency equipment, not counting the costs to purchase, house or maintain it.
This dispute has ethical implications. When asked to explain the ethical basis for CSU’s decision, CSU attorney Juwanda Davis stated, “All public agencies are allotted certain funding in the state budget for use in performing their public functions. California State University’s function is to educate Californians; fire districts’ function is fire protection.”
Going beyond SSU, the fire department in Hayward is engaged in a similar struggle with CSU East Bay, for many of the same reasons. Davis says other state agencies, including fire districts, have pursued similar claims, and have been denied. But since Cal Poly, one of the 23 CSU campuses, supports its local fire district, this may give RAFD attorneys the basis for an argument that the California constitution does not prohibit campuses from paying for emergency services.
In the meantime, RAFPD is pursuing other options to cover their expenses, which could include filing individual claims for emergency calls in small claims court, and negotiating a fair compensation for the service they will provide to the casino that will open in Rohnert Park. They could also join forces with other fire districts in a suit challenging the basis of CSU’s refusal to pay statewide.
Whatever happens next, Davidson is certain about one thing. Asked if all three fire stations would be open today if SSU had paid their share to support the fire district, he said, “Absolutely.”