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LAFCO to Reconsider Southern Marin Fire’s Sausalito Annexation

Commission approved district’s takeover of fire services for Sausalito in November 2011, but a resident and pair of councilmembers oppose the move.

The latest chapter in the Southern Marin Fire Protection District’s proposed annexation of Sausalito’s fire service operations takes place Thursday, as the Marin LAFCO (Local Agency Formation Commission) formally reconsiders its previous decision to approve the move.

On the heels of the seven-member commission’s unanimous decision last November to back the annexation, a trio of opponents to the move began a two-pronged approach to reverse the tide. Two of those opponents dissented when the Sausalito City Council approved the annexation in a 3-2 vote in September 2011.

Councilmembers Carolyn Ford and Linda Pfeifer oppose the annexation along with local resident John Flavin arguing that the move would remove local control and bring undue financial risk on the city’s budget. The annexation would shift 45 percent of the city’s annual property taxes to the Southern Marin district, which serves parts of unincorporated Mill Valley, as well as Strawberry and a small portion of Tiburon.

The commission hears the opponents’ request for it to reconsider its decision Thursday at 7 p.m. in the San Rafael City Council chambers at City Hall.

In case the commission refuses to changes its mind, the opponents have also been gathering petition signatures in an effort to either put the issue on the ballot in November or overturn the annexation entirely. If they obtain signatures from at least 25 percent of Sausalito’s 5,041 registered voters, the issue would go to a ballot measure in November. If they obtain signatures from at least 50 percent of those voters, the commission’s decision would be overturned.

That effort has been going on for the past two months. When asked to summarize the progress of the campaign, Flavin declined to comment. The opponents have until Feb. 13 to turn in their signatures.

The opponents have fought the annexation for reasons related to the pension costs for the 15 fire department employees who would transfer from Sausalito to the Southern Marin District if it occurred.

The opponents claim that because Sausalito and Southern Marin are part of different retirement systems – CalPERS for Sausalito and the Marin County Employees Retirement Association (MCERA) for Southern Marin - the annexation would allow firefighters to “double dip” by retiring from CalPERS, and thus receive pension pay, and then stay on with Southern Marin as employees.

In his staff report on the matter, Peter Banning, LAFCO’s administrative officer, wrote, that “what is referred to as ‘double-dipping’ in the request for reconsideration represents an economically irrational scenario for analysis” because an employee attempting to double dip “would be forfeiting the advantages of MCERA,” as they wouldn’t be eligible for any pension benefit from MCEA for 10 years. Only three of the 15 employees would be eligible to retire from CalPERS, according to the report.

Citing letters and reports from Sausalito city officials, the administrator of the county’s retirement program and an accounting firm contracted by the city, Banning rejected two addition pension-related reasons for the commission to reconsiders its earlier decision.

The LAFCO hearing is the latest development in a saga that dates back nearly a decade. Under a contract for service, the Southern Marin Fire Protection District has managed and operated the Sausalito Fire Department for eight years. District officials signaled an interest in moving towards consolidation in recent years, and although some Sausalito city officials hoped to continue with the contract for service, the district has made it clear it is no longer interested in that relatinship.

District Chief Jim Irving told the Sausalito City Council in July 2011 that the “district is interested in what provides long-term stability for the Fire Department,” and that meant annexation. District board member Cathryn Hilliard backed the sentiment in a letter to the city, saying, “the district is not interested in continuing a contract for service, nor are we interested in entering into a Joint Powers Agreement of any type,” the letter said.

The 411: Marin LAFCO reconsiders it previous approval of the Southern Marin Fire Protection District’s annexation of Sausalito’s fire service operations at 7 p.m. Thursday in the council chambers of San Rafael City Hall, 1400 Fifth Ave., San Rafael.

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