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Financial challenges may cause station closures

  • The Rancho Adobe Fire Station in Cotati. Robert Grant

By: Katherine Minkiewicz
March 30, 2018

Immense financial challenges brew on the horizon for the Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District, which may cause the closure of stations and lengthen response times if the district does not try to reach several of their solutions to the growing dilemma made more worrisome with the approach of fire season. 

The district, which serves around 28,000 residents from Penngrove, Cotati and Liberty Valley, is predicted to have a budget deficit for the 2017/2018 fiscal year as well as the following four years. Total expenditures for the 2018/2019 year are projected to come to $4,521,967, putting the districts funds way in the red.

Yet what’s more troublesome about the projected monetary shortfalls, is that it could result in the need to reduce the positions of part-time staff and close stations, which could double call response times.

If stations have to be closed, then how will the same level of service be provided? Greg Karraker, one of the Rancho Adobe Fire District directors said the major problem is they won’t be able to perform the same level of service if the worst case scenario comes true.

“We won’t be able to, that’s the problem. Response time now is around three minutes, that would go to six… We’re worried that it can be a possibility,” Karraker said. The last time the district had budget issues, the district only had one to two stations open at a time and were also forced to lay off firefighters, according to Karraker, who also said the board is concerned that the budget could lead to this type situation once again.

“We saw this coming, this is not avoidable… we need to have our eyes open (for solutions),” Karraker said.

That’s why in September of 2017 the board of directors sat down to whittle out a comprehensive five-year plan for how to best manage and soften the blow to the district’s funds.

There are several solutions laid out in the plan, such as proposing a ballot initiative for updating the district’s antiquated parcel tax, capitalizing on grants and asking Sonoma State University to pay for a portion of the district’s services they use.

According to Karraker, SSU alone makes up 10 percent of the district’s total calls. Around 9,500 students attend classes on campus, 3,200 of whom live on campus. Before the Rancho Adobe District took over, the small Penngrove Fire Department offered its free emergency response services to the school. 

“There is a longstanding issue there,” Karraker said of the free services provided to the school.

However, perhaps the district’s biggest solution that they are adamant on, is the parcel tax initiative that they hope to put on the ballot for the November 2018 midterm elections. When the tax was first created in the mid 90s, the $40 parcel tax seemed adequate. However, now the tax is inadequate and is only really worth $23.02 in 1993 dollars, according to a presentation on the five-year plan created by the Board of Directors Clerk, Jennifer Ober.

A higher parcel tax would generate more income and would better reflect the current cost of living. Many neighboring districts already pay parcel taxes from anywhere between $70 and $520. 

Several of the directors at last week’s board of directors meeting all voiced that this new tax initiative needs to pass.

“We’ll still have a deficit for 2017/18, even after we reduce expenditures” said fellow Board of Director Mark Hemmendinger.

According to Karraker, the ominous shortcomings have been brewing for several reasons, such as the potential loss of Graton Casino funds and the need to spend money on replacing aging equipment.

“There are several contributing factors. We have four firefighters eligible for retirement and that is a large cost projection. Money from the casino is also questionable. Every year the casino pays mitigation funds to the County that are then split up between different agencies. Our share is $300,000, but when the fires happened, neighboring districts lost a huge amount of their revenue,” Karraker said. In short, “The casino is not guaranteed income.”

According to the summary in the five-year plan prepared by Ober, there are several other budget busting factors involved as well.

“Future needs for staff retention, new capital equipment and overdue capital improvements to stations will impose additional strains on the budget,” the report states.

Basic equipment for a firefighters can cost upwards of $16,019, where a firefighter’s jacket alone can cost $1,312. Karraker says some of the stations will also in need new engines in the next few years, as some of them have already run past their estimated usage limit.

“Costs are going up and there’s more and more people (to protect),” Karraker said    

The five-year plan and other information about the Rancho Adobe Fire District can be found on their new website, www.rafd.org.