Measure L, a proposed sales tax increase that would have added firefighters and sheriff’s deputies in Madera County alongside new equipment and improved fire stations, was rejected by voters 56% to 44% Tuesday night.
With all 42 precincts reporting, 5,745 voters said no to the measure, while 4,516 gave it a yes. In total, the 10,281 ballots - 8,538 of them absentee - represented a mere 29.5% of 34,843 registered voters. The results are unofficial until certified, with some votes over the last few days left to be counted.
Measure L was designed to increase the sales tax in unincorporated areas of the county by 1% - from 7.75% to 8.75% - for 20 years and expire in 2037. It would have added some 25 firefighters and nine sheriff’s deputies with 80% of the estimated $171 million directed to the county’s fire department and 20% to its sheriff’s office.
Unincorporated areas are the entirety of Madera County except the cities of Madera and Chowchilla, whose residents did not vote on Measure L.
Work to pass the measure began more than a year ago, through consultations between the Madera County Fire Department and Cal Fire’s Merced-Madera-Mariposa Unit.
The county has five stations each staffed with one professional firefighter, and Measure L would have resulted in two firefighters in eight stations, as well as added incentives to help bring in volunteers as those rates falter.
Bill Ritchey, chair of the Citizens, Firefighters, and Deputies for Measure L 2017 committee, said he was disappointed in the outcome.
“I respect the process of democracy, but I feel that the people were misinformed and there will be consequences as a result of fire protection not meeting standards and continuing to decline,” Ritchey said. “I’m very shocked that after as hard as we worked, that the loss was as big as it was. That’s democracy though. It’s not going to change anything. I’m not going away, the problem’s not going away, and I’ll continue to work towards improving public safety.”
John Pero, chair of the Oakhurst/Coarsegold Tea Party and a vocal critic of Measure L, said taxpayers have been burdened enough, and the county should look at its budget to fix any issues.
“I had this gut feeling it would be defeated by double digits,” Pero said. “It’s a tax. I’ve talked to a lot of people and quite a few were against another tax.”
With Measure L’s failure, what happens next is unclear. Madera County’s fire department has had the same staffing level since 1928, and has never been able to meet state safety codes on two firefighters per engine. It appears unlikely, at least in the near future, that the county will be able to redirect funds towards fixing those problems.
“We’re back to square one,” said Tom Wheeler, Madera County District 5 Supervisor. “Just like we’ve been the last 30, 40, or more years. It’s hard to understand when you’ve got some people who are so negative putting out so much misinformation, it’s hard for people to realize what’s the truth. It’s just easier for people to vote no.”
Wheeler said he blamed the Tea Party for leading the charge against Measure L. He also placed some blame on the Bigelow family, including California Assemblyman Frank Bigelow (R-O’Neals). He said Barbara Bigelow made the motion for the Madera County Republican Party to be against the measure, and Frank Bigelow did not endorse it. Neither Bigelow could not be immediately reached for comment.
Officials with the clerk’s office said the election was budgeted for $100,000, and all of those funds were expected to be used on the special March 7 election.