Close vote expected on Measure L

Madera County Bass Lake Volunteer Fire Department Captain Steve Arata behind the wheel of one of the oldest fire engines in the county, a 27-year-old Ford C-Cab. The passage of Measure L in the March 7 special election would provide funds to add more fire fighters and upgrade fire equipment, including three new fire engines. Twenty percent of funds would go to the sheriff’s office.
Madera County Bass Lake Volunteer Fire Department Captain Steve Arata behind the wheel of one of the oldest fire engines in the county, a 27-year-old Ford C-Cab. The passage of Measure L in the March 7 special election would provide funds to add more fire fighters and upgrade fire equipment, including three new fire engines. Twenty percent of funds would go to the sheriff’s office. Sierra Star

Voters in unincorporated areas of Madera County will decide March 7 whether a 1% sales tax increase, dedicated to firefighting services and the sheriff’s office, is worthy of approval.

If Measure L is approved, the sales tax in unincorporated areas - essentially the entire county except the cities of Madera and Chowchilla - will increase from 7.75% to 8.75%, or an extra cent per dollar.

That would generate about $171 million during the measure’s 20-year lifespan, with 80% going to firefighting services and 20% to the sheriff’s office.

Measure L would eventually add 25 full-time firefighters and nine sheriff deputies throughout areas like Bass Lake, North Fork, and the Madera Ranchos. It will also ensure the department can meet safety codes to have two firefighters on each full-time engine, a standard the county’s never met.

The funds will also provide for increased training and recruitment of Paid Call Firefighters (PCFs), as well as new fire engines and equipment.

John Pero, chair of the Oakhurst/Coarsegold Tea Party and a vocal critic of Measure L, said he thinks it won’t reach the 67% threshold it needs to be passed by voters.

“I think it’ll fail by about 5% or more,” Pero said. “It’s hard to say, but I don’t think it’s going to get the number of votes it needs. My gut reaction is it’s going to fail.”

Bill Ritchey, who chairs the committee Citizens, Firefighters, and Deputies For Measure L 2017, said the vote will likely be very close.

“I’m encouraged and believe it will succeed,” Ritchey said. “But my philosophy is even if it fails by two or three points, even if we get into the 60% range, the task of educating the public and making them aware about the issues is a success ... I’m not taking anything to the bank. Every vote counts.”

Both sides agree that Madera County’s firefighting services, and to some degree the sheriff’s office, have been underfunded for years and deserve a boost to their respective budgets. But they disagree over the methods necessary to achieve that task.

For example, the Madera County Bass Lake Volunteer Fire Station, No. 14, has an engine that is 27 years old. The industry standard is for front-line engines to be 1 to 10 years old and reserve engines to never be older than 20 years.

At the station, Captain Steve Arata is a one-man volunteer fire department - down from 23 volunteers 17 years ago.

“I personally do not like taxes but I have no problem if the funds are used wisely, and that’s why I will vote yes on Measure L,” Arata said.

Supporters say paying an extra $100 a year, or less, isn’t much for the safety and security that Measure L will help provide. They added a thriving tourism industry - Yosemite broke records with nearly 5 million visitors last year - will help foot the bill.

“I fully support it,” said Debra Goodson, a resident of Yosemite Lakes Park. “I think we need more sheriffs and we need more firefighters. For what we’ll get from it, it’s a very small amount to pay per person. And since tourists will end up paying most of it anyway, it’s a great idea.”

“It sounds like a great idea to me,” said Oakhurst resident KC Butterfield. “I don’t see why we shouldn’t pay for it. If we live here, we all have a responsibility to take care of our area, and paying for more sheriffs and firefighters is part of that.”

Chris Christopherson, a Cal Fire Battalion Chief, said for years, the county has been “gambling with people’s lives” as firefighters often don’t have the proper staffing levels to back them up.

“At what point do we stop expecting firefighters and deputies to constantly put themselves in life-threatening situations because we don’t want to pay more taxes, but want the services,” Christopherson asked.

Ritchey said everyone can agree there is a problem, and Measure L is the best chance to help fix it.

“This is a call on values,” Ritchey said. “I can’t force my values on somebody else, but I think we can all agree there’s a problem here and that this measure is helping put us on the right track.”

“When businesses look to locate to a community, they want to be sure they are not only choosing a place their business will prosper, but also an area their employees and families will be safe,” added Bobby Kahn, executive director of the Madera County Economic Development Commission. “I urge all to vigorously support Measure L and support public safety.”

Tom Wheeler, Madera County District 5 Supervisor, said the measure includes language to ensure all funds go to firefighters and the sheriff’s office, and that current funding for both departments can’t be touched to try and sneak around those provisions.

Wheeler added language is also included so that any changes to the measure cannot happen without it being brought back to the public for a vote.

“This is all about public safety in Madera County,” Wheeler said. “That’s the same thing we’ve said for the last two years, the last two weeks, or in the last two hours. We need to get the staffing we need, and this is the only way that Madera County can do it. We have no extra money. There are no programs we can cut.”

Opponents skeptical

Opponents say they already pay enough in taxes, that the county should trim its budget, and they don’t trust the funds will be properly allocated. And although it’s a state program and not related to Measure L in any way, many don’t appreciate having to pay the state’s Fire Prevention Fee of more than $135 a year.

“I’m sitting on the fence right now,” said Hale S. of Oakhurst. “I have friends who are in first responder positions, several of them firefighters and some of them deputies. While I think it’s always a good idea to have more of those, I’m not sure if our area will truly benefit from this. If it were over five years, it would be an automatic yes for me. But for 20 years, I need more justification, and I’m just not seeing that.”

“If I had 100 votes, I would vote every single one against it,” said retired judge Ken Ballard of Bass Lake. “It’s a ripoff. We already pay extra taxes, and we don’t need to pay any more.”

Pero said the bottom line is the fire department and sheriff’s office should receive more funding, but not through a tax increase.

“You’ve got to put a stake in the ground, a line in the sand, and say enough taxation is enough,” Pero said. “This year, it’s a tax increase. Then next year, it’s another bond, or another tax, or another fee. It’s incrementalism. That’s what I object to.”

Gina Wallace, chairwoman of the Madera County Republican Party, agreed that a tax increase was not the proper way to obtain funds.

“We agree safety is a priority and current discretionary spending should reflect this priority, until all the safety needs of the county are met,” Wallace said.

For those voting in person Tuesday, polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.. There are about 35,000 registered voters in unincorporated areas of Madera County.

Vote by mail

Voters receiving their ballots by mail are urged to vote and return them in a timely manner. Voted ballots must be received or postmarked on or before Election Day (March 7) and received within three days of the election to be considered timely.

On Election Day, voters may return voted ballots to any polling place in the county or deliver it to the office of the County Clerk-Recorder, located at 200 W. 4th Street, Madera. A complete list of polling locations for the March 7, 2017 Special Election is available at www.votemadera.com.

Voters can also check the status of their Vote by Mail ballots on that site.

Details: Madera County Elections Division, toll free at (800) 435-0509.