Feb 1, 2019
by Will Carruthers
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors pushed back a decision on some parts of a plan to consolidate fire services in the county and discussed the county's political priorities in Washington DC and Sacramento with some county consultants at a January 29 meeting.
The supervisors' chambers were full to the brim in a sea of blue-clad firefighters from around the county waiting for a vote on the most substantial effort to fund and simplify the county's fire fighting services in decades. Many were disappointed when the supervisors decided to approve part of package of suggestions and delay others.
Under the suggested changes, some or all of the 39 fire agencies across the county would be grouped together under one agency in an effort to simplify the budgeting process, improve communication between agencies and use equipment more efficiently. The package also suggested directing staff to study the possibility of a 1/2 cent sales tax ballot measure and signing agreements to unify the county's 11 Volunteer Fire Companies (VFC) under a new oversight model.
The supervisors approved the studies of the sales tax and unification proposals, in addition to $1.6 million in funding to group four existing fire districts outside of Windsor under the control of one. A decision on two more proposals was pushed back to March.
The high number of fire agencies has long been a concern among firefighters and politicians, but the suggested package, known as the Fire Services Project, constituted the most significant effort to solve the problem in decades, according to firefighters speaking at the meeting.
While many spoke in favor of the plan, representatives of the firefighters' labor union said that they had been left out of discussions about the plan for most of the process.
"While there seems to be a general consensus that fewer agencies would be more efficient and effective, and that one agency would provide the ideal structure, there is a lack of agreement on how to reduce that number and over what time period that reduction should occur," a staff report states.
Supervisor James Gore bristled at the department head's push for an immediate vote on all of the suggestions, saying he was attempting to "putting us into a corner."
"I refute the idea that the wheels on the bus explode and everyone has failed fire services [if we don't approve the package today]," Gore said to Jim Colangelo, the interim director of the county's Fire and Emergency Services department.
Gore said he was still receiving questions from constituents about the specifics of the proposals.
In a lone vote, Supervisor David Rabbitt, the board's chair, voted against a motion by Gore to move forward with some of the suggestions while sending other items back to county staff for updates.
Rabbitt, who served on the committee tasked with reforming the county's fire system, said that a vote to delay the updates would risk making the plan "another book on the shelf."
Supervisors Shirlee Zane and Susan Gorin voted for Gore's motion. Supervisor Lynda Hopkins was not at the meeting.She is out on leave after giving birth to her son.
The supervisors will consider the suggestions again at a meeting in March.
Cities and counties, just like corporations, need help to have their voices heard in the nation's centers of power.
Lobbyists - known as legislative advocates in the parlance of county staff - from three firms representing the county's interest in Sacramento and Washington DC discussed recent political events and the county's legislative priorities during the next two years.
In a wide-ranging discussion, the supervisors and their legislative advocates discussed recent political events in the state and federal capitols relating to the county's top priorities: disaster recovery, housing production and transportation infrastructure.
Disaster Recovery and Mitigation Funding
Ensuring complete reimbursement from federal agencies has been a top priority for the county since the 2017 North Bay fires.
In the wake of the disaster, the county's lobbyists have worked to help the county navigate the workings of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's reimbursement procedures by alerting county staff about application deadlines and details.
Some of the county's federal funding requests, such as one application due on February 1, may be delayed due to the partial government shut down, according to Paul Schlesinger, a lobbyist with Alcalde & Fay.
The county could also be in line for disaster resiliency funding, according to Schlesinger. A recent bill, the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018, will set aside six percent of FEMA funding used for disaster response to fund disaster resiliency programs.
Although both parties have campaigned on the idea of an infrastructure bill - President Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign and the Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterms - none passed last year, in part because the Republican lawmakers disagreed with Trump's proposed plan, according to Steve Palmer, who represents the county in Washington DC.
"Because of the presidential election next year, if there is an infrastructure bill, it has to be passed this year," Palmer said.
Supervisor Gore, who served in the Department of Agriculture during the Obama administration, called on the county to prepare for the passage of an infrastructure bill because "at some point, one will pass, one way or another and you've got to be ready."
Sonoma County should have a list of "shovel ready" projects to pitch to the federal government for funding, Gore said, mentioning Highway 37 and a northern extension of the SMART train as possible projects.
At the state level, housing is quickly becoming one of Governor Gavin Newsom's go-to issues. This month, Newsom's administration proposed a budget with additional funding for affordable housing and announced a lawsuit against Huntington Beach, a southern California city that Newsom says has violated state affordable housing requirements.
The new governor's willingness to wield these tools to encourage more housing construction -- the carrot and the stick, as Supervisor Rabbitt referred to them on Tuesday -- suggests that it will be an interesting year for housing policy in California.
The supervisors also discussed the possible results of CASA Compact, a recently-approved list of recommended housing legislation for the Bay Area. Rabbitt serves as the president of Association of Bay Area Governments' executive board, the group that organized CASA.
The CASA Compact, which was approved on January 18, has proved controversial with some organizations voicing concern that the compact will limit the power of local governments to regulate what kind of housing is built.
CASA, which is now just a list of ten suggested legislative actions, was approved by stakeholders but still needs a funding mechanism and the power to enforce its rules.
Paul Yoder, who represents the county in Sacramento, said that he expects state legislators to introduce many of the recommendations included in the CASA compacts as separate bills this year.
"Every one of the specific CASA proposals probably will have an author. Some of them will more viable than others... there's a tussle between some members of the senate about what housing policy should look like in the state," Yoder said.
Rabbitt voted in favor of the CASA Compact.
"There's things in there for everyone to hate and to love but, at the end of the day, it will hopefully provide some direction in terms of housing," Rabbitt said. "It's still been controversial, even in the county."
Supervisor Susan Gorin later spoke in favor of "more communication with residents" about what to expect if come of the CASA recommendations are passed, citing the reaction of some county residents to earlier housing legislation that would have removed some local controls over what kinds of housing is built in the county.
One possible location for housing is the Sonoma Developmental Center, a 1,670 acre piece of state-owned mental care facility that was officially closed in 2018.
Karen Lange, a lobbyist with Shaw / Yoder / Antwih in Sacramento, said that the process of transferring the property from the state to the county may face delays and uncertainty in the coming months during the transition to the Newsom administration.
"This new governor does not have a history with the topic in the way the Brown administration did," Lange said, adding that the new governor campaigned on increased housing production.
Lange said she expects the state to hold on to the property during the planning process because the county may not be in a financial position to develop the property while the wildfire recovery continues. If Newsom decides to appoint a new director for the Department of General Services, the state agency managing the property transfer, the process may be delayed further, Lange added.
The full agenda is available online.
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