Supporters of a proposed 1% sales tax increase to support county firefighting and law enforcement presented the case for voter approval during a town hall meeting Thursday night inside the domed gymnasium of Wasuma Elementary School.
The proposed public safety tax will, after first and second readings by the Madera County Board of Supervisors, be up for vote March 7. If approved, it would increase the sales tax in Madera County from 8% to 9% - an extra cent every dollar - and generate around $8 million a year during its 20-year lifespan from October next year to September of 2037. For comparison, Mariposa County’s sales tax is 8%, Merced’s is 7.5%, the statewide standard, and Fresno County is 8.225%.
Special provisions in the measure would ensure the extra dollars are allocated solely to the county’s fire department and sheriff’s office, on an 80-20 percentage split.
Georgiena Vivian, President of VRPA Technologies, a consulting firm hired by Madera County, started her presentation to around 30 people Thursday with why the tax is needed.
“It’s pretty obvious that we need to enhance public safety within (Madera County),” Vivian said. “It’s important to note fire department personnel in the county has not increased since 1923, which makes this all the more necessary.”
Since 1923, the county’s population was one-tenth of what it is today, Vivian noted, and is expected to more than double by 2037.
Throughout her presentation, Vivian largely reiterated points similar to when the Board of Supervisors approved the plan to move forward in August. She and the plan’s supporters say Madera County’s fire department is underfunded by some $10 million a year, and the tax will help bring its outdated equipment, as well as its lack of code-mandated staffing levels, up to standard.
An ad hoc committee was formed in January to develop the plan, Vivian said, which will require two-thirds voter support to pass. In surveying done by VRPA in March, 76% supported or leaned in support of a half-cent sales tax increase, and 72% backed or leaned in support of a 1-cent sales tax hike.
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Troy Cheek said for firefighting, the collected dollars would be used for additional staffing at stations throughout the county, improve funding for volunteer or paid call firefighters, new equipment - most of the county’s is several decades old, he said - and update current stations with living quarters or other improvements.
In its first year, Vivian said the tax increase would fund six new firefighters at three stations, purchase a new fire engine and add seven deputies to the sheriff’s office, which will help improve response times and public safety.
In year two, Vivian said the North Fork fire station would be brought online with staffing and added equipment, while the Bass Lake station is maintained with added firefighters alongside other improvements and staffing additions. Further improvements would follow in year three onwards.
Bill Ritchey, a longtime supporter of increased funding for the county’s firefighters, said all the improvements were of utmost necessity.
“We’re trying to build a county fire department is what we’re really trying to do,” Ritchey said. “And we need it ... this is a step in the right direction.”
Cheek added his praise of Sheriff Jay Varney for agreeing most of the increased tax dollars, if approved, should go to the fire department.
“We all know every department is going to try and get as much money as it can,” Cheek said. “When Varney said ‘you need the money more than I do,’” that tells you all you need to know. Normally people fight like cats and dogs over whatever money they can get ... for the head of a county department to do that is unbelievable.”
Vivian said VRPA and the county would continue efforts to inform the public about the need for the sales tax increase until the March 7 vote.
Also included during Thursday’s town hall, hosted by District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler, were the introduction of Craig Hinch, the new commander of the Oakhurst office for California Highway Patrol, and presentations by Denise Tolmie, District Ranger of the Bass Lake Ranger District and Heather Heinks from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.
Wheeler’s final town hall of the year is scheduled for 6 - 8 p.m. Nov. 19 at the Oakhurst Community Center.
For the full sales tax expenditure plan, click here.
Details: (559) 662-6050, FAQ on the proposed public safety sales tax.