This spring, San Andreas voters will be asked to vote once more on whether to tax themselves to maintain staffing levels at San Andreas Fire Protection District.
Measure A shares the name of a similar measure that was on the ballot in August 2020, which came within 33 votes of passing, winning 62.9% of the ballots cast. Under California law, the measure needed a two-thirds supermajority.
Changes have been made with the new Measure A to lower cost for property owners and, in some cases, exempt low-income seniors.
“I remember talking to one voter, a widow, who said she loves the firefighters and is grateful they come to help when called, but that she was already not able to pay her bills on a meager fixed income,” Dana Nichols, chairman of the committee supporting Measure A and member of the San Andreas Fire Protection District Board of Directors said in a press release. “So we did two things. First, we reduced the proposed tax. Second, we granted an exemption for property owners age 62 and older who are also low income.”
The measure uses the federal definition of “low income,” currently $45,050 or less a year for a single Calaveras County resident or $51,450 for couples.
The tax for most properties with structures—both homes and businesses—would be $13.75 a month, or $165 a year. The tax for apartments and for manufactured homes in mobile home parks would be $5.50 a month, or $66 a year. Bare lots would pay just under $3.44 a month or $41.25 a year. Owners can also get exemptions for bare lots next to paying improved lots.
According to Nichols, the 66-square-mile fire district does not bring in enough tax revenue to pay salaries to firefighters or to always pay stipends to volunteers who agree to serve 24-hour shifts at the station. Currently, the district employs a full-time fire chief, a part-time office worker and three volunteer firefighters—the minimum needed to safely respond to most fire emergencies and collect revenue from strike team assignments.
“Historically, the district’s fire engine crews have helped finance the deficit by fighting wildland fires elsewhere in California. This ‘strike team’ rental of engines sometimes brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars that the district can then use to buy fuel, repair equipment and staff the station,” the release reads. “But some years, like the 2019 fire season, there are relatively few major wildfires and thus few opportunities to earn extra revenue to subsidize San Andreas Fire. As a result, the agency drained more than $100,000 from its reserves in the 2019-20 fiscal year. Fortunately, the firestorms that erupted in California in August of 2020 gave the agency opportunities to earn revenue. Thanks to that work, agency officials believe they can afford to maintain staffing until June of 2021.”
Nichols said the economic climate of recent years has made it more difficult to retain young volunteers who often move away for better pay. Additionally, the amount of calls the district receives on a regular basis have increased due to an aging population, while a lack of significant growth in the community has prevented increased property tax funding for the district.
“It’s kind of been this gradual change in how things are done. We’re not the only district dealing with this,” Nichols said.
In fact, more than half of Calaveras County’s fire districts have implemented a direct charge tax for property owners. The annual amounts charged are as follows:
Central Calaveras Rescue and Fire Protection District Fire Fee – $65 Per Parcel
Copperopolis Fire Protection District Fire Fee – $75 Per Parcel
Copperopolis Fire Protection District Fire Paramedic Fee – $75 Per Parcel
Ebbetts Pass Fire District Fire Fee-Improved – $39 Per Parcel
Ebbetts Pass Fire District Fire Fee-Unimproved – $11 Per Parcel
Mokelumne Hill Fire Protection District Fire Fee – $75 Per Parcel
West Point Fire – $78.50 Per Parcel
San Andreas Fire Protection District’s proposed $165 annually for most property owners would bring in an estimated $250,000 to fund a third volunteer firefighter and possibly a fourth, Nichols said, while the failure of Measure A will reduce the district’s numbers to only two volunteer firefighters.
While it is possible to receive state or federal grant money to purchase new equipment, “generally, there are no grants to hire personnel,” he added.
Although significant cuts have been made (the previous Measure A was expected to collect $560,000 annually for the district), some San Andreas property owners are still against the proposed tax.
Charlene Winkler, owner of Western Realty and resident of San Andreas, said she is concerned about absentee landlords and second homeowners in the community who will not get to vote on the measure.
“People who don’t live here have no way of knowing if there is any kind of tax thing going on,” she said.
Winkler also fears that the passage of Measure A could lead to future tax increases within the jurisdiction.
“The bad thing about it is once you get it in there, it will be like the school bonds and everything else—it will never end,” she said.
In response to the pushback, Nichols says he hopes absentee property owners can “have some compassion” for lower-income members of the community when it comes to fire safety.
“There are people who are just anti-tax, and that’s OK. They don’t feel, for whatever reason, it’s worth paying for. Some people are wealthy enough that they can self-insure and replace it,” Nichols said. “I understand they’re in a different situation, but wish they’d have a heart for the rest of us and not be so hard on their own community.”
Voters within the San Andreas Fire Protection District can vote on Measure A during a May 4 special mail ballot election.
For questions about San Andreas Fire Protection District, call Board Chairman Kenny Snyder, (209) 304-2148. For questions about the campaign or San Andreas Fire Funding Committee for Measure A, call Nichols at (209) 768-9072.