On March 7, nearly 35,000 registered voters in the unincorporated areas of Madera County will have the opportunity to vote on Measure L - a one cent sales tax increase that would provide funds for the exclusive use of enhancing county fire department and county sheriff’s office personnel and services for the next 20 years.
If approved by voters, funds generated from the one-cent sales tax increase will be specifically for the County Fire Department (80% of funds collected) and Madera County Sheriff’s Office (20%). None of the funds would be available to the cities of Madera or Chowchilla.
The funds, in part, would be used to provide 25 additional career firefighters to beef up staffing at stations and put a second fireman on all engines - purchase three new fire engines - provide for nine additional sheriff deputies - and help in the recruitment efforts for badly needed Paid Call Firefighters (PCFs or volunteers). It takes nearly 200 hours of training and $3,000 in safety gear for each PCF. With the additional personnel, response times and service levels within both departments would be improved.
The sales tax will be collected for 20 years (October 2017 through June 2037) and is expected to generate about $8 million per year - a total of $171 million during the duration of the sales tax measure period - by raising the sales tax from 7.75 to 8.75%. The state average, according to the state legislative analyst’s office is 8.5%.
Approval of the Measure L requires the affirmative vote of 67% of those voting on the measure - a vote that many feel will be close. A survey for the county by VRPA Technologies a year ago showed 72% of registered voters contacted “backed or leaned in support” of the one cent sales tax increase.
Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler first brought up the idea of the Public Safety Sales Tax two years ago, pointing out that the county currently has the same amount of firefighters that it had in the late 1920s, when the population was one-tenth of what it is today. And the fire department staffing has, unbelievably, been about the same since then.
There’s no good explanation why this situation has not been dealt with by county leaders over the past 80 or more years, but the fact is we now have the opportunity to play ‘catch up’ for the health and safety of county citizens, and the people who help to protect them.
Opponents of Measure L feel that the first responsibility of the Madera County Board of Supervisors is to provide fire and emergency services for Madera County citizens from existing tax revenues, and the supervisors have done just the opposite - spending, or planning to spend, discretionary funds on less important items such as a Madera County Welcome Sign or an off road vehicle park. They say it’s not about the lack of money, but misguided priorities. We actually agree, in part, with that thinking, and as much as those issues should not be overlooked, the benefits of what the passing of Measure L means to the safety of county citizens is far more important.
We understand some people are not 100% confident the funds will be spent as intended, but an important part of the measure is the formation of a seven-member Citizens Oversight Committee charged with reviewing all expenditures annually, along with independent audits, to ensure that expenditures are spent correctly.
The committee will be made up of a representative from each of the five supervisor districts and two at-large members. If passed, we’d like to see watchdogs John Pero and Tony Ward, critics of Measure L, sit on the committee.
Like Measure “C” (to provide a permanent junior college campus in Oakhurst) that was approved in November, this is another opportunity to improve the quality of life in Eastern Madera County with a relatively painless financial commitment by county residents.
If more firefighters can get to your burning house quicker - or to the auto accident you are involved in to pull you out of the wreckage - the 1% increase seems a small price to pay.
We urge a YES vote on Measure L on March 7.