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Blazing Mad

Smoldering resistance to Rohnert Park fire safety tax

By Bruce Robinson

FIRE PROTECTION is a hot issue in Rohnert Park. While the City Council may create a citywide assessment district to pay for more firefighters, the level of service is coming under increasing scrutiny for slow response times and inadequately trained personnel.

The bid to raise funds for the city's Public Safety Department comes after months of controversy, including a critical 1995 Sonoma County grand jury report that called for increased fire training and a need to be "more vigilant" in fire code inspections; numerous citizen complaints about the department's poor response to blazes; and the firing of a top official for falsifying time cards to indicate higher levels of fire station staffing than were actually on duty.

The public safety problems are compounded by equipment failures and blazes at shoddily constructed houses and condominium complexes, some with faulty firewalls that allowed flames to spread easily throughout the building.

Last year, the grand jury also found that in some cases firefighters had failed to inspect their hoses for eight years.

The proposed Fire Services Benefit Assessment District would raise a little over $1 million a year to hire 10 more public safety officers. It would fund two fire stations fully staffed around the clock, says Assistant City Manager Carl Leivo, and allow the city to increase its overall staffing to three fully manned stations.

Right now, two stations are staffed at all times, Leivo says, but "we cannot continue to do that" without additional funds. Without the parcel tax, he adds, the city would have to cut back to a single full-time fire station.

City officials notified Rohnert Park residents and property owners by mail when the proposed assessment was announced, so the public could comment on it. If enough people protest, the City Council would be blocked from unilaterally adopting the charge, which would be about $64 a year for an average single-family home. For that to happen, the city would have to get letters of protest from property owners whose proposed assessments total $100,000 or more.

However, the council could still decide to place the issue on the ballot in November, unless a higher threshold of resistance is reached. Should the letters of objection add up to $500,000 in proposed assessments, the issue would by law have to be abandoned.

The deadline for letters is Tuesday, July 9, when the Rohnert Park City Council meets to consider the measure. As of June 25, when city officials held an earlier hearing on the subject, 127 letters had been received, many of which opposed increased taxation in general.

"I don't believe the funding of a fire department by a city government should be a special tax," objects Terry Butler. "This is what city government is supposed to do. By funding other programs ahead of the fire department for years, this city has become warped in [its] values."

While most of the letters are from individual homeowners, other protests have come from business owners and the owner of a 136-unit apartment complex--letters that represent larger shares of the total proposed assessment.

More than a dozen local residents also spoke out against the proposal before the City Council last week, including one who noted that the assessment lacks both a cap on annual increases and a cutoff date. At the council's direction, city staff is now working on adding both.

UNDERLYING THE DEBATE over the assessment district is the city's unusual structuring of its police and fire services. Rohnert Park is the only city in the county to combine the two public safety functions in a single department. It relies on the same pool of officers to perform both police work and, when needed, firefighting.

"These are policemen acting as firemen, not full-time firemen," protests Paul Stutrud, a studious critic of his city's government. "Most firemen have to have 450 hours of training before they're allowed to fight fires. Rohnert Park has on-the-job training; then we rotate them out, bring someone else in and start all over again."

Stutrud cites numerous stories of inept performance by firefighters responding to structure fires in Rohnert Park, including truck drivers unable to find addresses, officers unfamiliar with the hoses and hydrants they need to use, and two-man crews that had to wait valuable minutes for a third officer to arrive before they could begin active fire-suppression efforts.

One Thanksgiving Day blaze that destroyed 10 apartments was "within sight of the Public Safety Building," but a Rancho Adobe Department truck from Cotati arrived on the scene before the local crew, which Stutrud charges was delayed by the awkward configuration of the city's public safety compound.

"There have been numerous fires . . . where people on the scene said the engine arrived but they wouldn't put any water on the fire until the second engine arrived," adds Charles Kitchen, another long-term critic.

What's worse, Kitchen says, is that unsigned letters to the council suggesting changes that could be made to improve the performance within the department have triggered an internal investigation trying to identify the source. "Chief Patrick Rooney was kind of bent out of shape about the letters," says Kitchen, who knows but will not identify the author. "He had more than one person in his office" being questioned about them.

Public safety officers who serve as both policemen and firefighters earn around $85,000 a year in salary and benefits, salaries well above those commanded by either profession separately.

One outgrowth of the dissent over the fire assessment plan is renewed interest in restructuring the Public Safety Department. "There are a lot of people who want to go back to separate police and fire" departments, Stutrud says.

A critical evaluation of the assessment proposal submitted to the city suggests that substituting trained firefighters for the higher-paid public safety officers could save the city $120,000 annually, money that could then be used to hire additional police officers or more firefighters.

Councilwoman Dawna Gallagher, who says she agreed to study the assessment district because she was confident the public would rise up to reject it, favors a plan to separate the services. "I'm very clear that the public sentiment is, Don't take any more money out of my pocket unless you're going to assure us real firefighters," she says. "The guys are doing the best they can with what they've got, but I don't believe you can be a policeman and a fireman at the same time."

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From the July 3-10, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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