A small but optimistic group of volunteers in support of Measure L gathered in the Old Mill Shopping Center parking lot Feb. 11 before canvassing neighborhoods with “Yes on Measure L” signs and knocking on doors urging people to help pass the 1% Safety Sales Tax initiative on March 7.
The sales tax will be collected for 20 years (October 2017 - June 2037) and is expected to generate about $8 million per year - a total of $171 million during the duration of the sales tax measure period - by raising the sales tax from 7.75% to 8.75%, with 80% of funds generated going to fire and 20% to the sheriff’s department. The measure needs 67% voter approval to pass.
Ensuring that the measure is effectively administered, a seven-member Citizen Oversight Committee will be formed to oversee spending, and the funds generated will be audited annually by an independent auditor.
In addition to interested citizens, Saturday’s group of about 25 included off-duty members of the Madera County Sheriff’s Office and county firefighters - all stressing they are volunteering not to help themselves, but to help every citizen in the county.
Back the Badge
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Chris Christopherson spoke at the gathering and made a passionate plea for people to support the passage of Measure L.
Christopherson said as a conservative, he is against taxes as much as anyone, but he and other firefighters and deputies are doing their job without the resources they need and their lives are being put in danger. Referring to the shortage of firemen to fight fires and the dangers that presents, Christopherson said, “I have small children ... when is it not fair that my family doesn’t have a father for the rest of their lives? When is it not fair that people don’t step up and pay for the services that they expect?”
He said county firefighters have been lucky to date since none have lost their lives in the line of duty.
“But we have lost firefighters who died within days of being on a house or wildland fire for an extended period of time,” Christopherson said. “We are gambling with people’s lives. People who have families. People that are fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. At what point do we stop expecting firefighters and deputies to constantly put themselves in life-threatening situations because we don’t want to pay more taxes but want the services. In my over 20 years of firefighting and law enforcement, I have been to far too many funerals - funerals of men and women who didn’t make it to retirement. Who never saw a fifth birthday of a son. Who never made it to their own wedding. Every firefighter and deputy has a face, is a person and has a family.”
Christopherson said the fire department is doing a lot more, even with the same staffing they had in 1928.
“Are we OK with things the way they are, or will we ‘back the badge?,’” Christopherson said. “It’s sad that people will pay insurance for a fire but don’t want to pay pennies to have someone respond when they have a car crash or medical emergency. Measure L has a defined expenditures plan, has citizen oversight, has accountability to prevent future supervisors from taking the monies for other projects. Being a sales tax makes it fair because it’s not funded by just property owners ... everyone who makes purchases will contribute to it. I would ask voters to do your due diligence to educate yourself and vote.”
Fire Department deficiencies
Bill Ritchey, chairman of the Citizens, Firefighters, and Deputies For Measure L 2017 committee - addressed the volunteers Saturday who gathered in front of the vacant Blockbuster building in the shopping center, highlighting the major points of why Measure L needs to be approved by voters.
He explained that in 2009, a reputable public safety consulting firm did a comprehensive report for the county that pointed out deficiencies in the county fire department, made recommendations for improvements and suggestions for funding those improvements.
“The No. 1 priority that came from that study was the need to address the one firefighter per engine issue,” Ritchey said. “The recommendation was that all engines should be manned with two firefighters for safety and to improve the efficiency of fighting a fire or providing rescue measures at a car accident.
“The electorate has the opportunity to decide if they are going to fund improvements in life-saving protection or allow the status quo to remain,” Ritchey continued. “The consequence of the status quo will ultimately be the complete collapse of the entire county-wide fire department.”
Ritchey praised the current board of supervisors for having the political courage to ask for this tax increase.
“In some cases, they are putting their political future on the line for this measure,” Ritchey said.
Madera City fireman Jerry Fernandez feels Measure L is so important, he drove to Oakhurst to assist with the Yes on Measure L efforts. He’s been a firefighter for 30 years, the past five with the City of Madera. He joined two other firemen visiting homes in the Broadview Terrace subdivision across from Oakhurst Elementary School, explaining to residents why they should vote yes on the measure.
“It’s very important to keep the public, along with our firefighting brothers and sisters as safe as possible, and the passage of Measure L will go a long way to make that possible,” Fernandez said.
Another fireman with 30 years experience is Cal Fire / Madera County Battalion Chief Troy Cheek, who oversaw the firefighting efforts in the Junction (August 2014) and Courtney (September 2014) fires.
“If this measure doesn’t pass Madera County Fire Department has nowhere to go but down,” Cheek said. “There has been no increase in staffing for more than 80 years. I don’t see that changing if this does not pass. The population continues to grow and Paid Call Firefighters (PCFs - volunteers) ranks continue to decline. The hardest hit will be in the Mountain Area. We have a number of communities in the mountains with only PCF coverage. Limited development makes it difficult to make developers pay for fire protection. Measure L could be the one and only chance to make sure our people are safe while trying to help the community. Help us help you.”
Christopherson said the number of PCFs has declined from about 300 in the mid 80s to about 70 active PCFs today.
Bass Lake Volunteer Fire Department Captain Steve Arata is the last man standing, and has been for 10 years at Bass Lake Station 14.
“Seventeen years ago Bass Lake Station No. 14 had 23 members - I try to help out the best I can, but I work out of town a lot,” Arata said. “Thank God we have a Cal Fire Amador Contract that allows them to staff during the off season. I personally do not like taxes but have no problem if it is used wisely, and that’s why I will vote for Measure L. With Measure L, if you call 911 you’ll get emergency service ASAP 24/7, 365 days a year. We have all been riding on a shoestring way too long.”
Judy Johnson, a nurse who lives in Bass Lake, has been a long time supporter of the North Fork Fire Department Auxiliary and supports Measure L.
“In June, 1988, I was on duty at Ducey’s Lodge at Bass Lake and watched as that place I loved so dearly was destroyed by fire,” Johnson remembers. “In August 2001 I personally witnessed the horrible power of wildfire as my North Fork land burned. Fire crews were able to cut lines across our parcel and stop the fire. We were very lucky. Fire has threatened us several more times in recent years. No one wants higher taxes but in a civilized society we must pay for that civilization. This wonderful community deserves no less than the improved services that will be provided by Measure L.”
Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler said the average family would pay under $10 per year on purchased goods with the new tax rate. Wheeler explained that the average annual family income in the county is about $38,000 and a state formula calculates that at that level, the family would be paying $300 to $500 in sales tax annually (not including any major purchase like a new car).
“So a one cent increase in sales tax on those purchases would amount to an increase of well under $10 to improve public safety by enhancing the county’s ability to respond to fire, medical emergencies and crime, particularly in the undeserved unincorporated areas of the county,” Wheeler said.
With the election just three weeks away, the Yes on L committee is gearing up its campaign with mailers, organized phone calling, a Facebook page (facebook.com/yesonlmaderacounty), walking precincts, placing informative door hangers on homes, and putting up a large number of 4 X 8 road signs and smaller yard signs throughout the county to draw attention to and inform voters about the measure.
Opposition to Measure L
Those opposed to the measure, including the Madera County Republican Party, the Madera County Oversight Coalition, and John Pero, chairman of the Oakhurst/Coarsegold Tea Party, feel the tax increase is not a good idea for a number of reasons.
Gina Wallace is the current chairperson for the Madera County Republican Party.
“We do not support raising taxes on the constituents of Madera County,” Wallace said. “We agree safety is a priority and current discretionary spending should reflect this priority, until all the safety needs of the county are met.”
“The pro-L people are saying the measure ‘might’ lower home insurance rates (ISO ratings) and ‘might’ lower property insurance rates, but there is no guarantee this sales tax will lower property insurance rates,” Pero said. “This was a fear mongering move and in the five presentations I attended we were constantly being told that this would decrease ISO ratings and also reduce property insurance rates. Pay now or later was the mantra. This is a false narrative.”
Pero said that even if the measure passes it will only generate about 25% of what the fire department needs.
“How will they fund the difference,” Pero asked. “They’ll be back for more in another year or two. I’ve also heard from a good number of people they’ll be voting against the measure but don’t want county officials knowing this as they fear it will reduce their ability to work with county officials in the future. That’s not a good sign. If people fear retaliation from county officials we have a major problem.”
Pero said the bottom line is he wants the fire department and sheriff to get more funding, “but the county has demonstrated by its spending actions on salary increases and other projects such as the willingness to spend over $1 million for a Madera Monument, that putting safety first - is not first. If salary increases were so important, why not put that on the ballot and have people vote for it. It demonstrates their priorities.”
Tony Ward, a former eight-year Madera County Planning Commissioner, is against Measure L because it reminds him of Measure T, the sales tax increase that was passed in 2006, to improve county roads.
Ward said one of the projects on the Measure T list of improvements was widening Highway 41 from Road 420 (top of Deadwood) to Highway 49 from two to four lanes. “This was sold as a way to evacuate Oakhurst in case of fire and relieve week-end traffic,” Ward said.
“Measure T proved that plans can be changed after the public approves the measure without a consensus from the voters.” Ward said. “While we in District 5 are asked to pay for services that should be covered by property taxes, the county is pursuing other costly projects and ignoring the existing road hazards and lack of medical facilities in our communities.”
Ward said it is difficult for him to oppose Measure L when he feels the need for better public safety and his son is a police officer.
“But the Madera County Board of Supervisors should accept their responsibility to provide safety through property tax dollars like all the other counties in the state,” Ward concluded.
Mike Sullivan, owner of Sullivan’s Tire Pros in Oakhurst, understands the need for increased funds for fire and police protection. But he is frustrated with wasteful spending by county government, and is concerned that the increase in sales tax could impact local businesses.
“I would never argue the fact that we need more fire and sheriff services, but my frustration is that I see personally and in my business how the county wastes taxpayer funds,” Sullivan said. “The one cent increase in the sales tax will give a minimal competitive benefit to Fresno. This becomes significant when added to sales tax and state mandated fees that are not collected for many online purchases. This results in consumers who pay sales tax and state mandated fees bearing the burden for those online purchases, where sales tax and state mandated fees are not collected. Maybe if everyone paid the sales tax due this increase would not be necessary.”
A series of public meetings have been scheduled by county representatives as follows: Feb. 16: 6:30 p.m., Oakhurst Community Center - Feb. 17: 6:30 p.m., Coarsegold Community Center - Feb. 21: Noon, Oakhurst Kiwanis Club, Best Western Yosemite Gateway Restaurant - Feb. 28: 6 p.m., Blue Heron Restaurant, Coarsegold - March 1: 6 p.m., Sierra Lions Club at Denny’s - March 2: 8:30 a.m., Yosemite Gateway Association of Realtors - March 4: 8:30 a.m., Oakhurst Democratic Club at Denny’s.