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A Fire District on Edge

Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District has implemented rolling closures at all stations, even as most calls originate near downtown Penngrove and Cotati. The chief says it's the fair thing to do, but others wonder if there is a better way

  On November 7, 2012, the day following the election, drivers passing the fire station in downtown Cotati were greeted by a large banner: Fire Station Closed Today Due to Budget Crisis. For Emergencies Call 911. The sign was a response to the failure of Measure Z, a $60 parcel tax the rural fire protection district was counting on to bolster its revenues, which have declined over the past five years. The measure failed to receive the needed 66 percent of the vote, prompting the district to begin rotating closures at its three stations. The closures have been evenly spread despite the fact that nearly 90 percent of calls originate near either the downtown Cotati or downtown Penngrove stations, according to a Patch analysis. The firehouse on Liberty and Pepper Road, for example, received just 143 calls out of more than 1,800 the agency handled that year. More than 55 percent of calls came from the area surrounding Station 1 in Cotati, while another 33 percent came from the area around Station 2 in Penngrove. That's made some to wonder if residents would be better served by having these two stations open on a more regular basis. "We all want the best and most efficient use of community resources, but from a community perspective, it would seem station closures should be based on call volume," said Cotati Mayor Mark Landman and a retired battalion chief with the Novato Fire Department. "But everybody’s having a rough time these days and I sympathize with them."    Rancho Adobe Chief Frank Treanor defends the so-called "rolling brownouts" as the fairest solution for all residents, including the 8,500 people who live in West Cotati serviced by Station 3. He tells a story about a man who suffered a heart attack while cycling on Meecham Road and was saved by Rancho firefighters who responded to the scene within three minutes. “They were able to get there and put a defibulator on him and bring him back to life,” Treanor said. “I don’t like to play Russian roulette. That’s why I want to have all of these firehouses open.” Rancho Adobe has already saved $150,000 since the rotating closures began. But the district still has a long way to go before it bounces back to full fiscal health, since declining property taxes (the fire protection’s main source of revenue) have forced it to dip into reserves over the past three years. The district currently faces a $387,000 deficit and could become bankrupt unless property values increase over the next couple of years. “We have probably two years left,” said Treanor, adding that the agency will have only $600,000 in reserves come next month. Lean Operation It’s tempting to say Rancho is mismanaging resources. But it’s actually one of the leanest around, paying an average 22 percent less in salary and offering firefighters only 2 percent (of the highest paid year) multiplied by the number of years worked when they turn 50. Most other fire departments offer 3 percent at 50. Rancho also offers a health savings account plan for its employees, which according to Treanor, has already saved them $200,000 over the past three years. That, together with a low-interest the district procured to buy two water tenders (fire trucks with water for rural areas without hydrants) landed Rancho a Spencer Flournoy Award from the Sonoma County Taxpayers’ Association last year. “We’ve done everything we can to keep the costs down,” Treanor said. “The issue is not that we’re spending too much, it’s that we’re not taking in enough money.” Treanor says the measure's success was hampered by a new statewide Fire Prevention Fee imposed on all California residents starting July 2011. “People were getting bills from the state right at the same time they were being asked to vote on this measure," he said. Merging to Save Costs Another option is for Rancho Adobe to merge with a nearby fire department, such as Petaluma, something Petaluma Fire Chief Larry Anderson says he would not be opposed to. “There is a benefit to doing management consolidation,” Anderson said. “We could share the fire marshal or fire inspectors, and they win and we win because we share a management resource. A lot of organizations start out doing a management partnership and eventually merge.” One recent example is the 2011 merger of Rincon Valley and Windsor fire districts following then Chief Ron Collier’s retirement. Both agencies kept their names, budgets, but share a chief, creating a savings of $100,000 a year. Anderson says the city of Petaluma is interested in a potential merger with Rancho Adobe and has put the issue on its list of priorities at the council goal setting session earlier this year. “We’re interested, but we also don’t want to tell them what to do,” Anderson said. Have you been impacted by Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District’s rolling closures? Should there be one station that's always open? Or is a merger between Rancho and a nearby agency a better solution? Like Rohnert Park-Cotati Patch on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. And sign up for our daily or weekly newsletter. Have an opinion about what’s going on? Share it with a blog.
George Barich May 14, 2013 at 01:12 AM
I also don't agree with rolling blackouts of our fire stations. I also don't agree the district is facing bankruptcy unless they sit on their hands, mismanage the district, or fail to rally support from the community as part of a SIGNIFICANT positive public relations campaign... and I have told them so until blue in the face. The district needs to collect from those who have received fire service but don't live here or have property within the district like on Hwy 101 or SSU. This is something our fire chief is now exploring, yet I suggested this years ago before he came on board, but received no support to take these claims to court for collection. Past RAFD board member Leland Fishman said publicly some years ago "We don't have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem..." Plus, Donation to the fire district are practically nonexistent. Fundraisers are few and far between. Pancake breakfasts and pasta nights are nice but old school and do not educate the public on the long term expenses the District faces. Punishing the public with station closures is bad PR. The District has seen hundreds of new homes built here in the last decade adding to the tax rolls, yet expenses still exceed revenue. This concerns many taxpayers who are already struggling financially. Continued below.
bill messimer May 14, 2013 at 01:15 AM
I have 5 fire stations within 5 miles of my house, short of having them move in with me, how much coverage do we need. We must be able to sustain these people and we can't do that if everyone works for the government on our tax dollar.
George Barich May 14, 2013 at 01:19 AM
So, what's the answer? Education, Involvement, and more Public Participation in our fire district. The District has done a good job of keeping a low profile during the good years. Now, they must wipe themselves off, think outside the box, and look at how to achieve an 80% approval rating at the polls for a parcel tax increase as money well spent. But the District must make a convincing case without the spin and without hand picking focus groups. They must focus on those most critical to learn how to overcome objections in order to move the District forward. As I have told the District, "Time is not your friend and time is running out" Three strikes at the polls and your out. "
Reginald "Rex" Henderson May 14, 2013 at 01:49 PM
"Follow the money..."
George Barich May 14, 2013 at 06:54 PM
The excuses used by RAFD have been many over the years. They did not save for equipment replacement when they should have. Instead, increases in pay and benefits for rank and file were given along with increases in staffing with few volunteers sucked money that should have been allocated to capital improvements. But the theory back then was, kick the can down the road, Get mine while I can. If it gets really bad, we will throw ourselves on the mercy of the taxpayers for a bailout. Problem was, it didn't work. The board couldn't do much about the real problem because the firefighters put them into office.... The one board member who tried, Barry Harris, was vilified by the staff. No one wanted citizen involvement. No one wanted an active and informative RAFD website. No one wanted to reach out for more citizen involvement. No one wanted to write articles to the local newspapers. No one wanted their photos published anywhere. They just wanted more money because they felt deserving. It was really unbelievable, and the part time fire chief inherited the mess and got caught between a rock and hard place. He was handed a mess and took his marching orders. Rather than embrace the green movement with installing a living roof on Station 2, they went with a foam roof. They laughed at Bodega for buying one of their old fire trucks, but Bodega had the last laugh by restoring it for a fraction of the cost of new. The board has been lazy taking a wait and see attitude, too.

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