After narrowly balancing its preliminary budget for the fiscal year in June, the San Andreas Fire Protection District will be holding a meeting to discuss a special tax proposal to area residents to fund its operations. The meeting will be held on Sept. 10 from 10 a.m.-noon at the Calaveras Senior Center, 956 Mountain Ranch Road, San Andreas.
The district had to dip into its reserves to balance its approximately $317,000 budget for 2019/2020, and a special tax could help mitigate the effects of a future deficit, according to Board Vice President Dana Nichols.
With the meeting, the district aims to inform the public on its financial situation and receive feedback from property owners and voters to see if they would be willing to fund such a measure.
“We’ve been living beyond our means,” Nichols said in an Aug. 27 phone interview. “We’ve bitten the bullet and we have been staffing our station even though our money is really tight.”
SAFPD during fire season typically relies on earnings from sending firefighters and engines to state-managed fires, but they haven’t gone out once this year, Nichols said.
“We already spend more on repairs than we budget each year, but have been able to do it because we earn extra money after we adopt the budget,” Nichols said. “But if a year ever comes when we don’t earn extra money, how can we pay for repairs?”
While it’s good news that there aren’t as many fires burning up and down the state, “It means we do not have that earning,” Nichols said. “That means we drain our reserves, and when (we) run out of money, the (district) isn’t able to pay a stipend for the firefighters to pay a 24-hour shift. That’s what we’re trying to avoid.”
Many of the district’s young volunteer firefighters bank on the chance to join a strike team for the experience and the bump in pay to $30 an hour, Nichols said. That wouldn’t be possible without a sustainable funding source for regular maintenance on the district’s type 3 engine.
Additionally, only being able to stipend two firefighters at the station at once results in significant delays in response times to emergencies, especially since many of the district’s volunteer firefighters commute to San Andreas from Valley Springs or even as far as Stockton, Nichols said.
In Mokelumne Hill, response times are much longer because firefighters are on call from their homes, rather than being staffed at the Mokelumne Hill Fire Protection District Station.
In an Aug. 28 phone interview, Mike Dell’Orto, the fire chief for the volunteer-run district, said its average response time ranges from six to seven minutes.
“Everybody would like to have people available here constantly, but the difference between responding in one minute or seven minutes is pretty expensive, at least for the number of calls we have (about 260 calls per year),” Dell’Orto said. By contrast, “San Andreas is on the go all the time; they have a lot more calls.”
San Andreas is proposing an $84.68 tax for unimproved parcels and $169.36 tax for improved parcels. This would draw in an extra $331,190 every year to be spent on hiring a third firefighter to be at the fire station and an assistant chief (salaried at $57,500 including benefits), in addition to repairs on equipment and the dated firehouse.
The assistant chief would split on-call shifts with Fire Chief Don Young, who is currently the district’s only full-time employee.
The proposal would also increase firefighter stipends from $75 for 24-hour shifts to $125, engineer stipends from $100 to $150 and captain stipends from $125 to $175.
Employing a third firefighter would not only improve response times and help lighten the load for current staff, it would help meet a state mandate to have three firefighters on the scene of a fire, according to Nichols. That’s a requirement for sending engines and staff to a strike team to fight state-managed fires as well, he said.
“That would yield enough to stabilize this district, and for the foreseeable future we could continue responding promptly to all emergencies,” Nichols said, adding that the district would still rely on grants and windfalls for equipment purchases. “If we earn money from a strike team, let’s put it in a fund to buy a fire engine, but we can’t depend on it … we want to prevent what happened in Paradise.”
There are currently 2,174 registered voters in the district, Assistant Clerk-Recorder Robin Glanville confirmed with the Enterprise on Aug. 28.
In order for a special tax to be adopted, the measure would have to receive support from two-thirds of the district plus one vote.
Residents could save for the tax by “not going out to dinner five times or taking one less camping trip throughout the year” – a small price to pay for a full year of rapid response fire protection, Nichols said.
He added that if response times increase, insurance rates may increase with them, or providers could potentially start issuing non-renewals in the area.
With or without a higher quality of fire protection, area residents could end up paying more out of their pockets.