Opponents to Measure L have defined their argument based on ideology; rather than identifying problems and proposing solutions of a public safety crisis which has been “swept under the rug” for years. Passing Measure L, the public safety sales tax measure, is our best chance to begin correcting the many deficiencies which impact safety services.
If passed, Measure L will raise the sales tax in unincorporated Madera County by 1%, from 7.75% to 8.75%, with 67% voter approval required for passage. By law, the revenues collected must be placed in a trust fund and can only be spent on sheriff and fire services in the unincorporated area of Madera County. The fund will have a citizen’s oversight board and receive an annual independent audit to verify compliance with the expenditure plan.
A sales tax was chosen, as opposed to a parcel tax, as the preferred way to assess all who benefit from emergency services: property owners, non-property owners, and tourists (nearly 2 million per year pass through Madera County).
Measure L, over its 20-year lifespan is estimated to raise an average of more than $8 million per year, and approximately $171 million total for fire and sheriff services.
Measure L will expire in 20 years unless a new special tax measure is passed again by the voters.
Why do we need Measure L?
In the 1980s, as Madera County grew south and east into Oakhurst, the former board of supervisors struggled to fund public safety. The Ranchos and Eastern Madera County were allowed to develop without planning for public safety, or a way to pay for it: little or no development fees, no community service or fire districts. The growth of the Sheriff’s Office and County Fire Department remained flat, while Madera County population nearly tripled.
The county responded with “shell games,” simply shuffling deputies and firefighters to the growth areas. The board closed or moved fire station personnel from existing locations to the growth areas in the Ranchos, Rolling Hills, and Oakhurst.
At various times over the last 30 years, the board has responded to budget shortfalls by temporarily closing three of five full-time fire stations, and even during the recent recession, by closing Cal Fire Amador stations during the winter months.
The county weathered the recession by layoffs of over 400 employees and furloughs. The budget was balanced, tighter efficiencies through reorganization were imposed, and the county remains 300 employees leaner today.
Despite an improving economy, deputy positions remain below pre-recession levels. At any given time, there may be as few as six deputies on patrol, county-wide. Response times are long, and backup is inadequate, forcing deputies into dangerous situations alone. Murder of law enforcement officers rose 167% last year according to a recent article in USA Today. The 1928 contract with Cal Fire allowed fire engines to be staffed with one firefighter 24/7, just as it does today at all stations except Chukchansi. Current regulations require the county to place a second firefighter on any additional engines added to its contract with Cal Fire.
Consistent with a national decline in volunteerism, Madera County Fire has seen a huge decline in its volunteer, paid-call firefighter (PCF) force. Once numbering over 250, PCFs have declined to around 70 active members. PCFs staff eight volunteer-only stations at Chowchilla, Yosemite Lakes Park, O’Neals, North Fork, Raymond, Awhahnee, Bass Lake, and Cedar Valley. Two PCF stations have closed in the last four years: Dairyland and Coarsegold. More station closures will result if this trend is not reversed.
What will Measure L provide?
☆ Add 25 full-time career fire-fighters
☆ All full-time engines will be staffed with two firefighters, 24/7.
☆ Three stations currently staffed with volunteers only, will receive 24/7 staffing with two career firefighters; at Bass Lake, North Fork, and Chowchilla.
☆ Increased recruitment and retention of PCFs, reimbursing volunteers for training and medical calls.
☆ Hire nine new deputies for patrol.
When considering Measure L, I ask voters to remember that the State SRA fee, about $115 paid annually, does not fund local fire protection by Cal Fire or local government. It funds prevention services only.
Passage of Measure L will improve citizen and first responder safety county-wide. On March 7, “Back the Badge” and vote “YES” for Measure L.
Editor’s note: Bill Ritchey is the chairman of the Citizens, Firefighters, and Deputies For Measure L 2017 committee. More information can be found at yesonlmaderacounty.com and facebook.com/yesonlmaderacounty.