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Fire district may go to court to force Sonoma State University to pay for services

Rancho Adobe Fire engineer Ryan Rania, right, puts on his air tank as quickly as possible as fire captain Larry Martinez times him at the station in Penngrove, on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013.

(Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Published: Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 3:43 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 1, 2013 at 1:33 p.m.

The fire district that serves Sonoma State University may take legal action to try to compel SSU to pay for the fire and emergency services it has received free for decades.

Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District Chief Frank Treanor said SSU refuses to pay even its "fair share" of the costs of providing service to the campus.

"It's just not working," he said. "We're maybe going to have to go to court."

Ten percent of the financially struggling district's roughly 2,000 calls a year are to the 269-acre campus, Treanor said, noting that it includes the Green Music Center, which is now open for public events as well as classes.

The dispute has carried on for years, with California State University attorneys saying state law prevents Rancho Adobe from charging SSU for services.

In 2007, SSU rejected a Rancho Adobe request that the university pay $150,000 a year to help the district recover its costs. And since 2009, when a district ordinance established a fee schedule, SSU has refused to pay any bill the district has sent it, Treanor said.

The fire district, which serves residents in Cotati, Penngrove and the unincorporated area north of Petaluma, is searching for ways to finance operations and maintain services. It has started shuttering its three fire stations on a rotating basis to close a $387,000 budget deficit after voters rejected a parcel tax in November.

SSU officials this week referred questions about the dispute to CSU attorneys, who maintain the university is within its rights.

"The (state) constitution prohibits another public entity from taxing a state entity or other local entity, because of the fact that both of them are pretty much funded by taxpayers," said Juanda Daniel, a CSU attorney who represents the campus.

"You'd be taking it out of one pocket and putting it in another," Daniel said.

But Rancho Adobe's attorney said the 89-square-mile district doesn't want to tax the university, just bill it for individual service calls.

The law allows an agency such as the fire district to set fee schedules to recover costs, as the district did in 2009, Santa Rosa attorney William Arnone said. For example, the district bills drivers in DUI accidents for the cost of services it provides, he said. Likewise, he said, the district is entitled to charge SSU when firefighters respond to the campus.

"It's a service-based fee and it is not assessed to do anything expect pay for the service," Arnone said.

In 2009, the fire district started charging people, usually students, who need help when it responds to emergencies on the campus.

"When we go over there because they get drunk and fall down, we send them a bill and it usually goes to the parents and their parents get irate about it," Treanor said.

The district gets about 180 to 200 calls to SSU a year, he said. Students, who make up nearly a third of the district's 25,000 residents, and others are billed about $150, Treanor said, although each call actually costs about $1,500.

Arnone said the fire district is looking for an opportunity to take the university to court, probably in the small-claims arena.

"SSU does not contribute any money whatsoever to support the agency that is providing emergency and fire services and yet they consume a great deal of service," he said. "The idea is, if we can't work something out . . . you take a test case and run it through the system."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.

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