With the Healdsburg City Manager and staff about to enter annual budget discussions, finding ways to keep spending in line without sacrificing services and safety become Topic A at City Hall.
That was the motivation behind Fire Chief Steve Adams’ presentation before the City Council last night about five options for structuring Healdsburg Fire into the future.
Department cuts and compromises totaled nearly $1 million in recent budgets, and the City recognized that cuts to staff meant the fire department was operating under minimal staffing levels.
So Chief Adams laid out five options in his report, ranging from the stand-alone department we have had for 150 years in Healdsburg, operating at current (e.g., minimal) staffing levels, to contracting with another fire service organization, such as CalFire (the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection), for all fire services.
Between the two extremes were three stages with decreasing control and visibility for the Healdsburg Fire Department, with a Joint Powers Authority hinging in the middle. The Sonoma County LAFCO (Local Agency Formation Commission) process is one such model, a regional independent public agency that organizes and coordinates more local agencies for efficiency.
While Chief Adams’ report was thorough and balanced (see attached PDF) – an evaluation that council members made it a point to thank him for – there was little doubt that the preference of City Council was to keep as much autonomy as possible.
Councilman Tom Chambers, acknowledging that he and probably other city council members were less qualified to recommend a path forward than the Fire Chief, asked Adams what his preference was.
“For me as a fire chief,” Adams said, “we’re already operating regionally.” Healdsburg , Geyserville and Cloverdale are in their third year of an informal shared services agreement, which Adams termed a “very successful effort.” Battalion chiefs are shared between the agencies , his report stated, “where each department participates, equally providing necessary overhead command and control for major incidents throughout northern Sonoma County.”
The option of contracting out services to an outside agency such as CalFire drew almost universal skepticism. It was possible that hours would increase, pay decrease, and unwanted transfers to personnel could take place under CalFire, Adams said, if the current Healdsburg fire staff was hired at all.
Most of all, as Ray Holley said during the public comment, what was at risk was Healdsburg’s identity. He pointed out the escalating loss of local control in options 1 through 5, and urged any consolidation take place in “baby steps.”
“The idea that we would not see ‘Healdsburg’ on the patches and trucks is just awful,” said the former editor of the Healdsburg Tribune.
Councilman Jim Wood responded that the study should eliminate contracting to CalFire from the outside – “contacting is a dead issue” – and that shared services was the direction the City should move in providing fire services.
Councilman Gary Plass said “We need to find a way to pay for it and protect our community,” and also urged a regional solution.
Other comments from the Council and the floor returned to the idea of Healdsburg on the patches and the trucks, until Mayor Susan Ones put it in even more personal focus: “It’s the people we are concerned about,” meaning the Fire Department staff, “not the name on the truck.”
Fire Chief Adams and city staff were asked to produce a more clarified direction forward, outlining a path that out would allow regional integration and, hopefully, keep the Healdsburg on the patches and the trucks.