County will consider sales tax increase to beef-up fire protection

Cal Fire presented options to the Madera County Board of Supervisors April 29, that would raise much-needed funds for much needed fire protection. The options, included a 1/2 cent increase in sales tax, would generate funds ranging from $1.2 million to $5.7 million annually.

Cal Fire Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit Chief Nancy Koerperich, presented the board with a bleak view of the county’s fire protection services, and stated that without additional funding fire stations will remain understaffed and outdated, and homeowner insurance rates are almost certain to continue to rise as the county faces what could be a bad fire season.

Koerperich stated the county fire protection services have not kept pace with the growth in the county. Although she praised the efforts of her staff, she noted they just don’t have the funds or other methods of support needed. Cal Fire, though under different names, has been the county’s contracted fire protection service since 1923, the longest standing contract of its kind in California.

Koerperich said that since the signing of that first contract, not a single additional firefighter has been added to the department’s rolls.

National Fire Protection Association standards, based on state and federal laws, require four firefighters per truck. Madera County is unable to meet that requirement. Koerperich added that only two of the stations meet essential service requirements, many of them have garages that can no longer house newer fire engines, and that 62% of all county fire engines are older than the 15-year standard for replacement.

“Our budgets over the last 20 years for fire and sheriff have not changed much,” District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler said after the meeting. “We need more dollars for them. So the board had staff figure out some numbers that we could look at to see if there is a way to fully fund all the positions at our fire stations full time 24/7 and fill all the vacant sheriff department positions. Fire gave us some options and the sheriff will do so in the coming weeks.”

“The half cent increase is a good example since it is the same as our current Measure T road improvement tax, and we can more easily project the amount of funds it might generate annually,” said Madera County Chief Administrative Officer Eric Fleming. “There has been no decision about whether the sales tax increase would be countywide or just the unincorporated areas excluding the cities of Madera and Chowchilla. Cal Fire will be making presentations to both city councils to see if they are interested in joining in the effort.”

Fleming said the county will be looking at the total annual cost for implementing some combination of fire and law enforcement options and what level of sales tax increment may be needed to finance it. To meet adequate standards,

Koerperich would like to see her budget increased from $4.4 million annually to $10.6 million to add additional staff, engines, equipment, and improved stations.

“It is important for the public to know that an increase in the sales tax would be used strictly for enhanced services and could not replace the general fund dollars going towards the existing level of service,” Fleming said. “Based on current year projections of what will likely be generated through Measure T, more than $8 million will be generated this year but that is a countywide tax including both cities. We contacted the State Board of Equalization to see what the same half cent increment would generate excluding the cities, and they are estimating about $2.5 million.”

“After we get some numbers from staff, we will see what our best options are to start talking to the public about how they feel about a sales tax for all,” Wheeler said. “I know it will be hard but if we have all our numbers showing that it’s for fire and sheriff only, and what they will get for those dollars, I think the people will help us pass it with a 2/3 vote. I feel strongly that the people will help us get this passed. More coverage, lower insurance rates, and less crime. It would be a win-win for all.”

Supervisors directed staff to work towards putting the measure on the June 2016 ballot. Fleming explained that once the county has an estimate of the enhanced law enforcement cost and whether the cities want to participate, staff will return to the board for further consideration and direction.

“At this point, I’m not taking a position on the proposed tax measure,” Fleming said. “I, like most taxpayers, don’t want my taxes to increase but this is a unique one since it will result in an improved quality of life for county residents. Without some new financing mechanism, our current revenue sources simply cannot support the enhanced services that our residents need. This is unfortunate but it has been our reality for decades.”

In a memo prior to the board meeting, Madera County Counsel Regina Garza reported that Cal Fire currently provides a variety of emergency and non-emergency public services throughout the county, from 16 fire stations by 30 permanent paid personnel, eight seasonal personnel and a varying number of volunteer fireman (paid call firefighters - PCF). Currently only six of the 16 stations are staffed by permanent paid personnel. The remaining 10 stations are staffed by PCFs with availability to respond varying significantly by station.

Garza said the county fire department continues to be a top priority for the supervisors.

“With the recent fire events and an on-going multi-year drought, there is a growing concern about the potential impacts to residents,” Garza said.

Before the supervisors can raise the sales tax specific steps must be taken including a public hearing, outline accountability measures, pass a resolution to set a date to place the matter on the ballot, and receive 2/3 voter approval. To have the tax question placed before voters in November, the required public hearing, and resolution must be adopted by the supervisors by the end of July.