Arcata Fire may survey voters about tax increase

Jack Durham
Mad River Union

ARCATA/MCKINLEYVILLE – The Arcata Fire District Board of Directors has decided to drop its plan to put a tax measure on the November ballot after learning that it would be impossible to meet the deadline for doing so.

Instead, the district may hire a polling company to determine what kind of tax, if any, residents in Arcata, McKinleyville, Bayside and Manila would support. The results of that survey could determine the district’s next move.

Impossible deadline

Arcata Fire Chief Justin McDonald informed the board at its Aug. 1 meeting that the district would need to pass an ordinance proposing the schedule and rates for the tax prior to the Humboldt County Election’s Office’s Friday, Aug. 10 deadline for getting on the November ballot.

It was only on July 17 that the board had decided to pursue the tax. At that time, district officials were still learning about the necessary steps to get on the ballot. The exact amount of the tax and other details have not been developed yet. And even if those necessary details had been worked out, passing an ordinance requires two separate meetings, which would make it impossible to meet the deadline.

For the first meeting, the district would need to give the public at least 10 days advance notice. If the board  were to vote in favor of introducing an ordinance, it would then need to wait at least five days before holding a second meeting to adopt the ordinance. But the adoption of an ordinance cannot take place at a special meeting, only at a regularly scheduled board meeting, with the next one on Aug. 21, a full 11 days after the ballot deadline.

The impossible deadline killed board members’ hopes for being on the Nov. 6 ballot, which would have only cost the district about $5,000, compared to the estimated $50,000 it would cost for an off-cycle election. The district would a have needed a two-third super majority to vote in favor of the tax to get it approved.

A new tack

At its July 17 meeting, the board decided to take a two-pronged approach to getting funding to maintain staffing levels and prevent the closure of a fire station. The first effort would have been the now-defunct effort to get on the November ballot. Had that measure failed, the board planned to pursue a benefit assessment in the spring of 2019.

However, since the July 17 meeting, McDonald has talked with representatives of SCI Consulting Group,  a company based in Fairfield, Calif., which, according to its website, “assists public agencies throughout California with establishment and administration of taxes, assessments, fees, and other special levies.”

The company, McDonald told the board, recommends that the district first contract for a professional survey to determine what kind of tax the public would support. The cost of survey would be roughly $35,000.

Boardmember Randy Mendosa said that the public may not be happy with having tax dollars used to pay for a survey. “That’s a bitter pill,” he said.

But Dave White of the Arcata Volunteer Fire Department, a non-profit organization that is separate from the fire district, indicated that his group may be able to help with the cost of the survey.

McDonald said he would solicit survey proposals from different firms and may bring them to the board at its Tuesday, Aug 21 meeting, which begins at 5:30 p.m. at the Arcata Fire Station, 631 Ninth St.

The results of that survey could determine the board’s next course of action

Different scenarios

The worst case scenario for the district is if the survey reveals that the public does not support any tax. If this happens, the district’s Future Planning Workgroup would start planning for how to scale down district operations to fit within the existing budget.

The district faces rising costs and, late last year, a federal grant that funded several firefighter positions expired. The saving grace for the budget, ironically, was last year’s wildfires. The district sent firefighters and engines to fires outside of the county and received substantial payments from the state for doing so. This allowed to district to maintain current staffing.

One option for trimming the budget is to close a fire station, most likely the Mad River Station on Janes Road.

If the survey shows support for a special tax, voters may decide the issue on the June 6 election.

If the survey shows support for a benefit assessment, then landowners could decide to tax themselves. Ballots would be mailed to property owners in April and they would be counted in July.

 







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