Madera County voters will likely decide in November whether a sales tax increase is warranted to provide additional funding for firefighters and law enforcement.
The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved the initial steps to potentially place that increase on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Those steps will include research done through a yet-hired consultant - at an estimated cost of $200,000 - on community support of a tax increase, as well as its finalized rate.
The board has discussed, with input from Cal Fire, the Madera County Sheriff’s Office and others, raising the county’s current 8% sales tax from around 8.5% to nearly 9%.
Mariposa County is also 8%, with Merced County at 7.5%, the statewide standard. Fresno County is 8.225%.
Rates for cities within those counties can vary, though the City of Madera is also 8%.
Whatever rate is selected, Chief Administrative Officer Eric Fleming guaranteed the increased dollars will be split only between the county’s sheriff’s office and fire department, with no effect on the general fund.
“Undoubtedly a majority of that increase will go to firefighting,” Fleming added. “Easily more than 50%.”
Particularly to the Madera County Fire Department, staffed through volunteers and a long-standing agreement with Cal Fire, an increase of any size is of absolute necessity due to underfunded positions and aging equipment.
In a previous board meeting, Nancy Koerperich, Cal Fire unit chief of the Madera-Mariposa-Merced unit, painted a grim picture of stagnant funding rates.
“The status quo is we have not truly evolved in the changes to population in Madera County,” Koerperich said of stagnant funding rates. “The equipment, or the facilities ... what we have is a difficult and unsafe working environment.”
Volunteer firefighter levels have plunged over the years, Koerperich said, along with more than half of all Madera County engines older than the state’s 15-year standard for replacement.
Those issues lead to higher fire insurance rates for residents in rural locations like the Mountain Area, where payments reach thousands of dollars each year.
“What people are paying now for their insurance is extravagant compared to this tax rate,” District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler said. “They might pay an extra $100 a year on the tax, but they’re already paying thousands for insurance instead.”
Wheeler and other county officials have indicated improved staffing and equipment will assuredly lower those insurance rates.
Many officials also say the potential tax increase is all but expected on November’s ballot, at higher than a half-percent.
A half-percent sales tax increase would add an approximate $8 million to the county.
The Madera County Fire Department budget for 2015-2016 is $4,681,883.
During Tuesday’s meeting, supervisors unanimously approved for the Madera County Fire Department to move forward with purchasing new equipment at Station No. 8 near Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino.
That aerial firefighting apparatus, an articulating platform for the station’s engine, will be funded entirely by the casino through an amended Memorandum of Understanding approved by the board in November.
It will allow firefighters to reach all of the resort’s 11 floors with the engine, which was previously impossible.