Madera County supervisors have approved a plan to go before voters in March to raise the sales tax to fund the county fire department and sheriff’s office.
Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler first brought up the idea two years ago, pointing out that the county currently has the same amount of firefighters than it had in the 1920s, when the county population was one-tenth of what it is today.
The county population (excluding the cities of Madera and Chowchilla) today is at 155,000 and is expected to grow to more than double to about 320,000 by 2037.
If approved by voters, the one-cent sales tax increase in the unincorporated areas of Madera County, will be specifically for the County Fire Department (80% of funds collected) and County Sheriff’s Office (20%) to improve response times and services levels within both departments.
The sales tax will be collected for 20-Years (October 2017 through June 2037) and is expected to generate about $8 million per year - a total of $161 million during the duration of the sales tax measure period.
Instead of having the measure on the Nov. 8 presidential ballot, supervisors voted to pay about $30,000 to hold a special election on March 7, 2017. Wheeler said the measure was too important to the future safety of county residents to get overshadowed on the busy November ballot.
“The measure would not receive the attention it deserves from voters if it was on the Nov. 8 ballot,” Wheeler said.
Supervisors voted 5-0 July 26 to move forward with community informational meetings about the tax increase. The county’s sales tax would climb from 8 cents to 9.
In late January, supervisors authorized the County Administrative Officer Eric Fleming to seek professional services (VRPA Technologies of Fresno), to assist in the preparation of a Dedicated Public Safety Sales Tax Measure and to evaluate public support for the increase.
An ad hoc committee was formed in January to develop the plan that will require two-thirds voter support to pass. In surveying done by VRPA, 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.
Wheeler said the sales tax measure will improve public safety by enhancing the county’s ability to respond to fire, medical emergencies and crime, particularly in the underserved unincorporated areas of the county.
Wheeler said the average resident pays $200 to $300 per year with the sales tax at 8 percent. The new measure would add only about $25 to $35 to their tax burden, he said.
The funds are sorely needed to keep pace with the ever-changing firefighting and law enforcements standards and techniques.
In addition, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) sets standards for fire protection services, and currently has more than 300 codes and standards.
As NFPA standards and state and federal laws designed to implement these standards have evolved, Madera County has been unable to provide the necessary funding to improve staffing, equipment and training needed to meet these higher standards.
Fleming points out that improving fire safety capabilities to meet current standards will offer benefits to homeowners even when they are not directly affected by a fire. Not meeting NFPA standard currently results in poor ratings by insurance companies - this results in annual policy premiums that are $500 to - $3,500 higher for Madera property owners.
The report by VRPA states passage of this measure is expected to result in reduced home insurance policy rates for all county property owners.
Madera-Merced-Mariposa Unit Fire Chief Nancy Koeperich said there are no guarantees that premiums will drop, but one way to move in that direction is to improve staffing and access to water.
Ensuring that the measure is effectively administered, a Citizen Oversight Committee will be formed, and the funds generated by the increased sales tax will be audited annually by an independent auditor.
The complete Draft Sales Tax Expenditure Plan can be seen at www.madera-county.com/Proposed-Public-Safety-Sales-Tax.htm.