The Local Area Formation Commission (LAFCo) held a workshop at Rough and Ready Fire Protection District (RARFPD) Station 59 on Thursday to provide information on the dissolution application process. LAFCo also received an application by Penn Valley Fire Protection District (PVFPD) to annex RAR’s territory following the dissolution. The workshop brought to light the complexities and challenges of the plan.

LAFCo members attend the workshop in Rough and Ready
LAFCo members attend the workshop in Rough and Ready. Photo: YubaNet

How it started

Both districts submitted their applications after unanimous votes by their respective boards. The RARFPD board voted to pay off the outstanding loan on Station 59 to keep the station available for PVFPD to use. PVFPD assumed the payments and ownership of Engine 5960. Penn Valley’s application includes a clause asking for “[a]n appropriate property tax-sharing agreement between the Penn Valley Fire Protection District and the County of Nevada is agreed pursuant to Revenue & Taxation Code section 99 that has the support of the Board of Directors of the Penn Valley Fire Protection District.

At this time, the combined budgets of both districts would not cover the required expenditures to provide complete coverage for the new area, hence the request to renegotiate the share of the 1% ad valorem tax received by Penn Valley – currently 0.20037% ($486,895)

LAFCo’s Executive Director SR Jones stated, “Right now we have two applications. One from Rough and Ready Fire Protection District to dissolve and a second application from the Penn Valley Fire District to annex the territory so they can be the successor agency under the process. As you heard, the Penn Valley proposal is conditional upon the completion of tax negotiations with the county. At this point, we have the Rough and Ready proposal for dissolution and an indication from the Rough and Ready Board that they cannot provide services after the end of the fiscal year [June30, 2023]. So, Rough and Ready have asked LAFCo to take action on the dissolution, which under this process. The Commission would take action on the proposal at a noticed public hearing, following consideration of the proposal and its consistency with LAFCo law and the Commission’s policy.”

How it’s going

It’s unlikely the dissolution will be complete by end of June, a 30-day reconsideration period is legally mandated after LAFCo votes on the proposed resolution. Once the dissolution is complete, Nevada County would be designated as the successor agency while the annexation details are worked out. A successor agency assumes all the liabilities and revenues, meaning Nevada County would have to contract for services in the Rough and Ready area from neighboring fire districts – for a fee.

The current auto-aid agreement would come to an end, explained Penn Valley Fire Chief Don Wagner, “even though there’s going to be a legal dissolution because of the finances, they’re going to shut their doors at the end of the pay period at the end of June and not respond. So once that happens, there is no more automatic aid or mutual aid agreements. So what’s probably going to happen is the boards are going to get together and discuss this and talk about, ‘Yes, we’ll provide service, but it’ll be for a fee, a fee for service.’ We’ll have to have some income. It’s not fair to the residents of Penn Valley to support all of the continuing sitting apparatus and staffing up here. We need some sort of a fee to kind of cover that. That’s a temporary solution. We can only do that for a certain amount of time, and we’ll be working with Grass Valley on that.”

CAL FIRE not a viable option

If a district is defunct, the area falls under the State Fire Marshal’s responsibility. Landon Haack, North Division Operations Chief for CAL FIRE NEU attended the meeting and provided some clarity on what the agency would and would not provide, “… if it makes it to where the responsibility comes back to the State Fire Marshal’s Office, then it will defer to us. But in that being deferred, we wouldn’t staff the station, it doesn’t require that we come down and staff a station. We would provide a response until there’s a solution. But that response would be coming from the closest Cal Fire staffed resource. So in the wintertime, that would be the station up at Nevada City, and then in the summertime, it would be whichever one is closer to the call, either Smartsville or Nevada City. And that would still just be if those engines are available, there’s not an obligation to come and staff the facility. We would send something to the call, and it would be coming from somewhere, which would be the closest resource that we have available. So you can imagine what that looks like during the summertime. Outside of that, it would be the only ability for us to do something here would be through a cooperative fire agreement, like a Schedule A contract.”

The average price for Schedule A contract? About 1.3 to 1.5 million per year.

The canary in the coal mine and the circular firing squad

Rough and Ready Fire is the proverbial canary in the coal mine when it comes to fire districts no longer being able to provide the services needed with the revenues provided by taxpayers. Consolidation at one time seemed like a viable option, but given RARFPD’s financial situation no equitable assets besides the fire station remain.

The county’s role in this process is complex, to say the least. Supervisors and staff will have to find a solution to provide services for the 700 parcels in the district and look at the bigger picture of fire services in Nevada County. All while sticking to their oft-repeated mantra “We are not in the fire business,” as Supervisor Lisa Swarthout, present in her capacity as LAFCo commissioner (alternate) pointed out: “understand that we as the Board of Supervisors have zero authority over the fire district.”

“We’ve had numerous discussions amongst the fire agencies and things of looking at countywide consolidation. Of all of the fire districts together, the most recent one was three or four years ago and probably came to closest,” said Penn Valley Chief Don Wagner.

Referring to a survey done a few years ago to switch to one county-wide assessment for all fire services, he recalled “the community overwhelmingly wanted to support more staff, fire stations, paramedics, three people on all these engines, but they didn’t want to pay for it.” Survey respondents were asked if they would pay $200, $300 or $400 a year for fire services and the overwhelming majority wanted all the services and pay $200 – not the $400 needed to operate at that level. While little to no public education and outreach was done before the survey, it did not help consolidation talks at the time.

Attempts to consolidate or merge fire agencies have started numerous times, with little results. There are currently 10 local fire departments in Nevada County, plus CAL FIRE and U.S. Forest Service fire stations.

The next LAFCo meeting is on June 22nd in the Board Chambers at the Rood Center.

Why This Matters

Local residents are directly affected by fire departments’ ability to respond to any incident, be that a medical call, an accident, or a natural disaster like wildfire, flooding or winter storms. First, the immediate need during an emergency for a rapid and professional response. Second, a district with limited staffing, a lack of equipment or long response times affects the ISO rating of an area, which in turn directly affects the insurance premiums for homeowners. Coverage refusal or cancellation are already rampant in the high fire hazard areas in California and beyond. Fire departments make up 50% of an ISO score. In short, the better your fire department is equipped and staffed, the easier it is to find affordable homeowners’ insurance.

You can watch a replay of the meeting here:

YouTube video