An informational Town Hall held by District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler last week provided updates on numerous Mountain Area issues including fire safety, recycle bins, and restoration efforts on areas burned by the Willow Fire.
Perhaps most notable during the two-hour meeting at the Pines Resort, attended by a little more than 50 people, was a Board of Supervisors idea, currently under review, to increase sales taxes by half a percent across the county.
That potential increase, if voted on by the public in November next year, would increase the county’s rate to 8.5 percent and provide a projected annual $8 million, for use solely by Cal Fire and the Madera County Sheriff’s Department.
Wheeler, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Troy Cheek, and others said they support the tax increase as all 17 of the county’s fire stations are understaffed, equipment is outdated, and with no changes, insurance payments are expected to continue rising.
“This is a cash-strapped county,” said Cheek, while noting the fires handled by his unit this year are the worst he’s seen in 26 years. “Right now there’s only 13 paid firefighters in all of Madera County. We’re in dire straits right now ... I’m an advocate of the increase. There’s something we say in the fire service, you either pay the fire department or you pay the insurance companies.”
Some people in the audience didn’t support higher taxes.
John Pero, an advocate of the Tea Party, contended that the county should look to cutting wasteful spending, and alleged the YARTS program, which provides public transit to Yosemite National Park, is a primary example with many buses to the Valley largely unridden.
“This is typical never let the crisis go to waste,” Pero said. “I would suggest before we go trying to pick the pockets of the taxpayer, we take and analyze the current budget that we have for inefficiencies.”
Wheeler responded that the YARTS program is not part of Madera County’s spending - it’s a federally-funded project with the National Park System - and that the county’s budget has been repeatedly cut to bring it out of debt after the 2008 fiscal crisis.
“We go over that budget every single year to see where we are,” Wheeler said. “We’ve laid off 1700 people down to 900 people, we’re back up to 1100 or so now. We’re still lean, mean, and efficient.”