Rough & Ready Fire Protection District is running out of money, fast. Despite “brown outs” to save on staffing costs, the district will have to face very hard choices in the coming months.

As reported in April of last year, the financial situation for the Rough&Ready Volunteer Fire Department (RRVFD) has become untenable. In September 2022, a committee composed of members of RRVFD and Penn Valley Fire Protection District (PVFPD) was established to conduct a feasibility study for a consolidation of the two districts.

Also in September of 2022, PVFPD Chief Don Wagner was appointed Operational Chief for RRVFD. He oversees the daily operations, manages staff and is an advisor to the consolidation committee.

Current situation

On Tuesday evening, two members of the RRVFD Board of Directors were present at Penn Valley’s meeting. The verbal report of the consolidation committee, composed of both districts’ board members brought no new options or solutions.

“We know time is running out. We need to get some sort of response from the county. So as far as the consolidation committee, we’re going to still try and move forward as long as there is a glimmer of hope that we can make this work. We are looking at going ahead and pursuing some town hall meetings later this month and then we’ll see what kind of response we get. Obviously we’re going to expect some response from the citizens in both of our fire districts and we’ll see if we get a response from anybody in the county also and we’ll move forward from there. I wish they had more answers to give to people because we’re just not getting anything from the county.”

These statements require some clarification. First, special districts like fire districts are not under the County authority, they have their own board of directors. Second, Rough&Ready’s problems go back several years, including a successful special assessment that underestimated the needed funding. Third, the strain put on neighboring fire districts by closing the station several days a week creates a domino effect. Lastly, other agencies are working to assess the immediate and long-term needs and options.

Townhall set for Feb. 22nd

In their quest for a solution, RRVFD is now reaching out more actively to their residents. A town hall has been scheduled for February 22nd at 6:00 pm at the fire station. “We’ve come up with all the ideas we can, but there might be some good solutions out there that we haven’t either thought of or heard yet.” There is no agenda for the town hall available yet, but we will keep you posted on any details.

Penn Valley FPD, Nevada County and LAFCo working to fix the problem

Penn Valley Fire has taken the lead in examining options. Their Chief has taken over the operational direction of Rough&Ready and is working on the required financial projections, budgets and service requirements, in addition to running the Penn Valley district. Rough&Ready does not have a counterpart available to effectively participate in this work. Both a consolidation or an annexation require three-year plans, approval by the respective Board of Directors and, in all likelihood, bridge funding, followed by the creation of new district boundaries through the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo.)

District 4 Supervisor Sue Hoek has been attending the workgroup meetings and stated, “LAFCo invited the County to participate in a meeting last week to look at Penn Valley and Rough and Ready consolidation. At the meeting, Penn Valley Fire asked the County to explore ad valorem tax rates and gap funding. The County agreed to offer County fiscal staff to assist with the financial analysis of consolidation and participate in LAFCo’s workgroup meetings moving forward.”

Hoek recognized the important role fire departments play in the county, “The County does not provide fire service, but we recognize that our independent fire districts are essential community partners. I plan to continue to advocate for them on issues that support their long-term financial feasibility, such as meeting with our State leadership when skyrocketing insurance premiums contribute to their financial instability. We commend Penn Valley Fire District for supporting the Rough and Ready service area during this time and Rough and Ready Fire District for looking at short-term solutions like grant funding opportunities and agreements with nearby fire partners. The workgroup will continue to look at all viable solutions for the residents of Rough & Ready Fire District. We hope to support and give Rough & Ready the tools to find a solution for their community.”

The Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) is actively working with the consolidation committee. LAFCo’s responsibilities include the review and approval of the formation of public agencies, a change in boundaries of existing agencies, and other changes in organization of local agencies, such as consolidations. Nevada County LAFCo Executive Officer SR Jones explained their involvement: “LAFCo continues to work with both Districts and the consolidation committee on this effort. The consolidation plan would be the basis of a proposal for application to LAFCo, if it is approved by the boards of both districts. The Committee will be evaluating the fiscal outcomes of various consolidation/reorganization options, and LAFCo will continue to assist this effort. In addition, County officials have offered the assistance of financial staff to help develop revenue assumptions.”

Possible options, not a comprehensive list

If no additional funding materializes, RRVFD could shut its doors in June, according to statements made at Tuesday’s meeting. Some of the options for providing service to the residents include:

  • Calls for service in Rough&Ready’s area would be answered by the surrounding agencies – for a fee.
  • The district goes dormant until funding can be secured. Residents would possibly experience longer response times and neighboring districts would have to expend funding to cover these calls outside of their area.
  • Consolidation with Penn Valley. At this time, PVFD does not have the funding to staff an additional station with two firefighters 24/7. RRVFD does not have the funding to prepare a budget for their new fiscal year starting in July 2023.
  • Annexation of the area into the Penn Valley District. Rough&Ready VFD ceases to exist.
  • Parcel out the district to Nevada County Consolidated and Penn Valley fire departments. While this would lessen the strain on any one department, additional staffing would likely be required by all.
  • One western Nevada County fire agency. A larger consolidation of all current fire departments in western Nevada County to streamline operations, standardize training and create a single agency. A heavy lift, not feasible in a short timeframe.
  • Have CAL FIRE take over the district. If CAL FIRE has the necessary resources in staffing, hand the district over to the state agency. The financial impact to homeowners is unknown at this time.

Firefighter Union sees no economic sense in consolidation

Local 3800, the Professional Firefighters Union in Nevada County, is generally in favor of consolidations and mergers that streamline operations. In this case however, “it’s not possible, it doesn’t make economic sense,” said Local 3800 rep. Clayton Thomas. They are concerned about the remaining firefighters at RRVFD – should the district choose to close in June. To be fair, a similar concern was voiced Tuesday night by committee members, “They’re good fire personnel and they deserve to find a good job because they have families to take care of themselves.”

It all comes down to funding

Local fire departments are largely funded by a portion of property taxes, voter-approved special assessments, a portion of Prop. 172 funding, fees for services, donations, grants and reimbursements for strike teams sent on large fires. Fees, grants, donations and strike team reimbursements obviously vary from year to year.

The percentage of property taxes distributed to special districts differ between districts. Think of the total secured property tax as a pie that goes to fire districts. Currently Penn Valley receives .200% of the entire pie ($486,895) and Rough & Ready receives .114% of the entire pie ($277,645). Nevada County posts the 1% Ad Valorem Distribution every year on the Auditor-Controller’s website.

“Ultimately, it all comes back to what property tax apportionments were for the agencies at the time of Prop 13 passage. Prop 13 reduced property tax apportionments proportionately. So, an agency that was receiving a higher property tax apportionment in 1978/79 will generally continue to receive a higher property tax apportionment,” explained Auditor-Controller Gina Will when this reporter asked why certain special districts received a higher percentage of property taxes.

Penn Valley is a pre-Prop. 13 district. At the time, the volunteer fire department had a shoestring budget – the apportionment is proportional to that, even though the district transformed into an independent and professional fire service.

Residents are affected by fire district woes

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.

About the two fire districts

Penn Valley’s district covers 92 square miles and provides ambulance service. They operate three fire stations, two of which are currently staffed twenty-four hours a day with a minimum of two personnel. 

Rough&Ready covers approximately 9 square miles and operates one fire station, three to four days a week at this time. The district currently has no permanent Fire Chief since April of 2022 and operates mostly with part-time volunteers.