Fire tax gains momentum

Jack Durham
Mad River Union

ARCATA FIRE DISTRICT – In an effort to maintain staffing and prevent the possible closure of the Mad River Station, the Arcata Fire District will likely ask voters to pass a special property tax on Nov. 6. If that measure fails, the district may pursue a benefit assessment next spring.

If either the special tax or benefit assessment passes, homeowners in McKinleyville, Arcata, Bayside and Manila could see their taxes go up by  more than $100 a year.

The two-pronged effort to raise funds for the district was discussed July 17 by the AFD Board of Directors, which voiced support for the tax increase. Now AFD staff will need to scramble to determine the exact amount of the proposed tax and write the text of the measure so the board can consider it at a meeting on Wednesday, Aug 1 at 5:30 p.m. at the Arcata Fire Station, 631 Ninth St.

The district faces a tight deadline. To get the tax on the Nov. 6 ballot, AFD needs to submit the measure to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors no later than Aug. 10.

Arcata Fire Chief Justin McDonald

Although the board has yet to decide the exact amount of the tax, AFD Fire Chief Justin McDonald said that the tax needs to generate at least $2 million a year to maintain current staffing and keep up with rising expenses.

A special tax would charge property owners based on what the fire district calls a “unit of benefit.” Being that a single-family home is deemed to have four units of benefit, an annual tax of $116 per household would generate roughly $2 million a year.

The district, which has an annual budget of $3.45 million, employees 18 career firefighters and four chief officers. The staffing allows the district to have 24/7 coverage at its three stations, with two on duty at the McKinleyville Station, two at the Mad River Station and three at the Arcata Station. That third firefighter can float between the stations depending on absences, thereby keeping a minimum of two firefighters on each engine.

Up until late last year, a $1 million Federal Emergency Management Agency grant helped pay for six firefighters, but that grant expired. Two of the firefighters got jobs elsewhere and left the district, and one firefighter was terminated.

The district has also experienced rising costs, including gas, insurance and contributions to retirement funds.

Calls for service are also on the rise. McDonald said there were about 150 more calls last year than the year before.

Ironically, what helped the district’s budget were the raging wildfires last year throughout California. AFD responded out of the area with engines and staff and was paid for doing so by CalFire. “We have money in the bank,” said McDonald, referring to the district’s reserve funds.

That cushion is allowing the district to maintain current staffing and keep all its stations open.

However, McDonald said, it’s not a sustainable budget over the long-term. If the district is unable to get a tax passed, it may have to reduce staffing and may have to close a station, most likely the Mad River Station at 3235 Janes Rd. near Mad River Community Hospital.

AFD Vice President Randy Mendosa said at the July 17 meeting that its imperative that all three stations remain open.

“The absolute minimum this district needs is, we need to staff three fire stations,” Mendosa said.

District leaders were initially debating whether to pursue a special tax on the ballots, or to pursue a benefit assessment, in which landowners decide whether to tax themselves.

But firefighter Luke Walker, who explained the pros and cons of the two tax proposals at the July 17 meeting, said that the district’s Strategic Planning Committee voted unanimously to recommend pursuing the special tax on Nov. 6 and, if that fails, a benefit assessment in the spring of 2019.

In order for the special tax to pass on Nov. 6, it will need support from more than two-thirds of the voters. Former AFD Chief Desmond Cowan led the effort to try to pass a similar tax in 2015, but it failed to get  the required super-majority, with 55.38 percent of the voters opposing the tax.

An advantage of pursuing the special tax on the November ballot is that it’s relatively inexpensive to do so, with the county charging the district only $5,000, compared to the $50,000 it could cost for an off-cycle election, Walker explained. Also, it’s a mid-term election and voter turnout may be higher, which Walker said may help the district obtain the super majority needed.

Some of the disadvantages of the Nov. 6 measure is the short timeline and the campaign to get the tax passed would take place during the fire season.

“It’s poor timing for campaigning because the majority of the boots on the ground that would be going for this campaign would be either committed to fires or working a bunch of overtime,” Walker said.
AFD board member Elena David expressed hope that people may have a greater appreciation of the importance of the local fire service given recent events throughout the state.

In October 2017, the Tubbs Fire broke out in Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties. It was the most destructive fire in California history, destroying 5,643 structures.

Walker said that the work that the district will do to get the measure on the November ballot and campaign for it will be useful even if the measure is defeated. If that happens, the district would pursue a benefit assessment in the spring of 2019.
Property owners would be mailed ballots and the district would need to get more than 50 percent approval for the assessment.

McDonald said that before trying to pass a benefit assessment, fire district officials would visit with large land owners. Ballots or weighted based on the size and value of properties, so owners of large properties have more say in whether the assessment gets passed.

Also at last week’s meeting, McDonald noted that the district is saving a significant amount of fuel since it began using its pickup trucks to respond to non-fire calls, such as medical aid calls. The district has reduced miles logged on its fire engines by nearly 30 percent. That means the district is burning less diesel fuel. However, the cost of fuel has gone up and the state enacted a 22-center-per-gallon tax, so fuel cost were six percent higher than what was budgeted.



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