Fire protection districts feel the heat of bad economy

As part of cost-saving measures, Copperopolis Fire Protection District bought this used engine for a significantly reduced price.

The financial hardships faced by Calaveras County have far-reaching effects and special districts in the county are feeling the same pinch – especially the fire districts.

“My office is in the unique position in that we deal with all the special districts,” said Rebecca Callen, auditor-controller for the county. “So we’re seeing what they have to endure on a regular basis.”

During the midyear budget talks at the Board of Supervisors meeting in late February, the grim reality of the special districts’ financials was presented by Callen, particularly in light of the Teeter Fund so many of them use to stay afloat during dry funding periods.

Last year, the board voted to spend more than $3 million from the Teeter Fund to fill the gaps in the county’s budget. But with Teeter made up of one-time funds, it’s a dangerous trend that could put special districts in serious jeopardy.

“The biggest issue I see, and I’ve talked to some of them – it’s the fire districts,” Callen told the board.

Fire districts, along with all other special districts, receive the brunt of their revenue from property taxes, which are down about 23 percent from the high in 2008-’09.

Only 1 percent of property taxes are returned to the county and that money is divided between the county, school districts and special districts, as well as a small portion that goes to Angels Camp.

Special districts receive 14 percent of that allotment and those funds are allocated at three different times throughout the year. They receive 55 percent in December, 40 percent in April and the remaining 5 percent in June. This often leaves a financial gap from late summer into winter.

“July through December, in terms of fire districts, that’s where you see the bulk of their expenditures because that’s when fire season is, so it’s kind of a double whammy,” Callen said.

In order to keep operations going during that period, most fire districts borrow from the Teeter Fund until they can repay the money after receiving their December allocation. If that ability to borrow is not there, the repercussions could be dire.

“It would be devastating to the fire services – absolutely devastating,” said Don Young, fire chief at San Andreas Fire Protection District. “I would venture to say, you could have doors close on fire facilities.”

Whether that actually occurs will depend on the budget decisions made by the board, but it still doesn’t change the fact that many districts are operating on shoestring budgets, due in large part to the downswing in property values after the economic collapse.

“We’ve lost about 40 percent,” said Steve Kovacs, fire chief for both Copperopolis and Murphys fire protection districts. “(We’ve been) forced to put Band-Aids on a lot of what we do because the revenue is just not there.”

Districts have been forced to put off purchases to replace equipment despite the need to update. But other problems can arise if that happens for too long.

“The longer you have a piece of apparatus in service, the more potential there is for more costly repairs,” Kovacs said. “At Murphys Fire District, we have a 1987 fire engine that should have been replaced five years ago.”

Copperopolis Fire District was recently able to purchase a fire engine for its fleet, but it was a piece of equipment long overdue. To make it happen, the district found a Type I engine in Virginia that would give the district the biggest bang for its limited buck.

“That fire engine, brand new, is going to be $450,000 and that’s a lot,” said Kovacs, who anticipates a solid decade of service out of the used engine. “We purchased it for $55,000. … This is the type of engine we needed, but we’re not willing or able to afford the $450,000 for the brand new one.”

While most of the 10 fire districts in the county are suffering, Ebbetts Pass Fire Protection District is one of the few with its head well above water.

“Ebbetts Pass is one of our wealthier districts, by far,” Callen said. “Not only do they receive significantly more of that 1 percent, they also have that special assessment.”

In fact, Ebbetts Pass, which has more than 20 full-time employees, is projected to receive nearly $1.6 million in the upcoming fiscal year, which is more than $1 million more than any other fire district. And if the projected allotment to Copperopolis Fire District of $557,000 was removed, Ebbetts Pass Fire District receives more than all other fire districts combined.

That amount of the allocation goes back to 1979, when Proposition 13 put limits on the property tax values and established the dispersal percentages.

Prior to that state legislation, Ebbetts Pass had established its own fire district, given the high fire danger, the increased population back then and the subsequent property values of the community. Homeowners in that area had previously voted to contribute a substantial portion of their property taxes to the district. That level of contribution was carried over to the new allotment established by the state, and Ebbetts Pass Fire District has been reaping the rewards ever since.

“They’re one of the few districts we don’t really have to loan money to,” Callen said. “They have large enough reserves to sustain their operations year round.”

Ebbetts Pass Fire District also has two separate special taxes in place that provide paramedic and ambulance services to the residents in the district. This brings in some additional revenue, though it’s not always consistent.

“That has helped us financially over the years, but over the last few, we are getting into the same position (as others),” said Cheryl Howard, secretary for the district. “As the property taxes are dropping, our reserves are going down.”

The district still has funding to cover the dry period between July and December, “and that keeps us from having to go to the county,” Howard said.

Others aren’t so lucky, however. And as the county’s own financial situation hinges on drastic measures made in many departments, fire districts are left pinching their pennies and hoping the Teeter Fund remains as the temporary, annual fallback.

“Every governmental entity is going to have that concern that there isn’t going to be enough to continue to provide that level of service that the public expects,” Kovacs said.

But the pie is limited and the options are few.

“I have districts coming in all the time looking for help … for a way to increase their portion of the 1 percent,” Callen said. “Really, the only other option is – if you can’t make your operations more efficient or look at consolidation efforts – reaching out to your community and asking if they would be willing to pay for more services.”

Ebbetts Pass was successful garnering that community cooperation in the past, and Mokelumne Hill and West Point fire districts also have special taxes in place. But recent efforts have not been so well received.

Calaveras Consolidated Fire Protection District in Valley Springs recently sent out a survey asking the community about its feelings on a potential special tax to expand services. Only about 35 percent of respondents voiced support of the effort, which is a far cry from the 66 percent required to pass such a tax.

Fire districts are left to make due with less and wait for the property values to rebound.

“We’d always like the economy to take a swing (upward), but I don’t see that happening for a few more years,” Young said. “These fire districts are operating on low budgets. … we’re hurting all the way around.”

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