Ideally, a taxpayers league should help inform and educate voters about tax measures so they can make the right choice at the ballot box.
It’s hard to say whether the Humboldt County Taxpayers League’s president, Uri Driscoll, and its executive director, Kent Sawatzky, are doing so because they are woefully ignorant about the Arcata Fire District, or if they are intentionally trying to deceive the public in an effort to kill Measure F.
If it’s the former, they’re being reckless and irresponsible. If it’s the latter, they are being unethical. Either way, they’re coughing falsehoods in our faces, spreading the disease of confusion.
The league’s disregard for the truth is spelled out in a tsunami of misinformation included in arguments it submitted to the Humboldt County Elections Office for the upcoming sample ballot.
In their “Rebuttal to the Argument Against Measure F,” Arcata Fire District Board President Nicole Johnson and Vice President Randal J. Mendosa summed up the extent of the league’s misinformation campaign, stating, “There is not enough room on this page to address the numerous misleading statements and untruths contained in the argument against Measure F. We are saddened the author has not taken time to learn extremely important facts before taking such a negative position on something as important as the safety of our community.”
That author they refer to is Driscoll, who signed the “Argument Against Measure F.” The “Rebuttal to the Argument in Favor of Measure F” is signed by both Driscoll and Sawatzky.
A blizzard of falsehoods
In his “Argument Against Measure F,” Driscoll poses several questions.
Driscoll asks: “Has the Arcata Fire District (AFD) done enough to consolidate services to provide an efficient use of limited resources?”
The answer: Yes. To balance its budget, the district has left eight positions vacant, saving roughly $1.3 million a year. It has closed one of its three stations on a rotating basis. It has deferred maintenance on some vehicles.
The district even canceled trash service at the Mad River Station, so now the chief picks up the trash, puts it in his truck and delivers it to the McKinleyville Station, resulting in a savings of $58 a month.
Sometimes, when it comes to minor station repairs, firefighters dip into their own wallets to buy supplies. That’s unacceptable.
Look in the mirror
Driscoll continues: “Why is AFD demanding a special tax during these uncertain economic times?”
Answer: Because the Humboldt County Taxpayers League helped defeat a similar tax measure that was placed on the March ballot before the shelter-in-place orders and financial calamity. Besides, the current economic situation wasn’t the fire department’s doing, and doesn’t diminish the district’s financial needs.
Driscoll continues: “Whether the measure passes or not will not significantly affect ISO ratings.”
Actually, if Measure F fails, AFD will likely consolidate into a single station, meaning response times will significantly increase, putting billions of dollars of assets at risk.
Fires will be bigger, more buildings will be destroyed and more lives will be lost.
What’s more important that our ISO rating is our actual risk from fire and the destruction it causes, which will undoubtedly increase with slower response times, costing the community millions of dollars.
And lives will be lost due to the delays. According to a local first-aid instructor, when someone is having a cardiac arrest, successful defibrillation depends upon how quickly the defibrillation occurs.
For each minute in cardiac arrest, the chance of survival goes down 10 percent. After about 10 minutes, survival is unlikely.
If you have a medical emergency, it’s possible that your survival will depend up whether your local fire station is open or not.
Driscoll continues: “95% of the AFD calls are medical assistance and do not require a full engine company response. The current policy can change.”
In yet another misinformed statement, Driscoll gets the percentage of calls for medical assistance wrong. The correct number is 46 percent. As for responding to medical calls without a full engine, this was the practice back when the district had three open stations before the league helped shoot down the tax measure in March.
Instead of rolling to a scene with a full fire engine, AFD would respond to EMS calls with a pickup truck from either the McKinleyville or Downtown Arcata Station. This was possible because there was a centrally located fire engine and crew ready to respond to fire calls from the Mad River Station.
But with only two stations open, this is no longer safe or practical. If firefighters were at a medical aid call with a pickup truck, and a fire call came in, they would need to drive back to the fire station to get a fire engine before responding.
This would significantly delay the response to a fire. Because of this, firefighters need to roll to EMS calls with an engine.
Driscoll continues: “Why does there appear to no longer be a deficit in AFD’s ledger? Just last year the failed Measure R campaign told us there was a $250,000 deficit hence the need for more taxes.”
If Driscoll had been paying attention, he would have known that after the failure of Measure R in March, the district made budget cuts. It left eight positions unfilled and closed a station on a rotating basis.
Just asking questions
Driscoll’s questions, however, are not intended to solicit answers. They’re meant to create doubt and suggest that something is amiss, something fishy is going on, something is not right. What he’s doing is called JAQing (just asking questions.)
This allows Driscoll to make wild accusations without having to take responsibility for his allegations. Hey, he’s just asking questions, right?
It’s insulting and disrespectful to anyone trying to make a responsible decision about committing to a new tax.
The district has been transparent in its process of developing and approving budgets. The AFD Board of Directors holds meetings open to the public.
Driscoll continues: “This measure as stated mis represents [sic] the actual tax. The stated total annual tax is simply not accurate. Make no mistake, this measure is an ADDITIONAL fire tax. It would NOT replace the existing fire tax.”
It’s not clear what Driscoll means by this, but his point is not to help educate voters or come to a better understanding of what the measure would accomplish.
Once again, his goal is to sow doubt.
In the league’s “Rebuttal to the Argument in Favor of Measure F,” Driscoll and Sawatzky write “The AFD chose to punish and play Russian roulette with the McKinleyville fire station when it could have closed the Mad River station or rotated the two Arcata Stations.”
Had Driscoll and Sawatzky attended to the AFD board meetings, they would know that deciding which stations to close due to the failure of Measure R was an agonizing process.
The board, with the input of career firefighters, decided that the fairest way to close stations is on a rotating basis. This results in all constituents being treated fairly, no matter where they live.
Lying about ACTUALLY lying
Driscoll and Sawatzky continue: “AFD misrepresented the total annual charge for a Single family residence as $118. ACTUALLY, it would be $206 per residence. A mobile home assessment as stated is $90 when ACTUALLY it would be $171.”
Once again, this is a false allegation from the league. If Measure F passes, it will replace a special tax approved in 1997. A typical single family home would be assessed $118 a year, which is an increase of $98.
Residents within the district also pay a benefit assessment, which is separate from Measure F. The league is playing games here and sowing doubt by adding the benefit assessment to the Measure F figures, and then suggesting there is some sort of sleight of hand by the district.
Driscoll and Sawatzky continue: “If you live in Eureka the fire assessment for a residence or mobile home is $0. AFD could instead have a sales tax such as in Eureka where those who can afford can pay and those on Social Security pay next to nothing.”
Once again, this is false. The average single-family home in the Humboldt Bay Fire District pays a benefit assessment totaling $72 a year, not zero.
Humboldt Bay Fire is also connected to the City of Eureka, which funds a significant part of its budget. And the reason the AFD is not pursuing a sales tax is because special districts are not allowed to collect sales tax. The league’s suggestion isn’t even a legal alternative.
The Humboldt Taxpayers League is using sample ballots, printed and mailed by the Humboldt County Elections Office, to shower voters with patently false information about Measure F. The league is recommending a tax alternative that’s not even legal.
What’s your name?
The league shouldn’t even be trusted to tie its own shoelaces, being that it can’t even figure out its own name.
In a form that the nonprofit filed with the California Secretary of State in 2019, the group identifies itself as “The Humboldt Taxpayer’s League.” On its website, the group goes by “Humboldt County Taxpayers League.” But when submitting ballot arguments, the group identifies itself as “Humboldt County Taxpayer League,” dropping the “s” after taxpayer.
These guys are sloppy, and so is their thinking.
The group’s Measure F recommendations ought to be thoroughly ignored by voters. The league needs to get its act together and behave like a responsible organization, starting with a change of leadership.
Reasonable people can disagree on a tax measure. Debate is essential to the electoral process.
But if their position is defensible, they should be able to forego deceptive tactics and stick to facts, rather than fiction and fear, in doing so.