Many fire districts in the county are hurting for revenue. They’re operating on shoestring budgets and any reserves they may have in place are being depleted.
Calaveras Consolidated Fire Protection District is one of those suffering, and it’s looking for a way to sustain itself going into the future. In that vein, the district sent out a survey to the residents in its district to test the waters for a potential special tax to help keep services running smoothly.
“We sent it out about a month ago,” said Kim Olson, chief of the district. “If (the response) was favorable, we were trying to get something on the June ballot.”
More than 8,700 surveys were mailed in late January and, by late February, 1,605 had been received, which is an 18.38 percent return rate.
The survey contained about a dozen questions and touched on four basic issues that need to be addressed at the fire district: the need to hire full-time firefighters, the implementation of an advanced emergency medical technician program, another fire station in Wallace and the need to replenish the equipment replacement account. Two separate options were presented: a benefit assessment tax and a parcel tax.
Respondents were given five choices to determine their level of support, from much more likely to much less likely.
After tallying the results, the feedback from those surveys was clear: overall support was at 34.6 percent.
“Roughly 60 to 70 percent are against any kind of tax assessment, largely because of the Cal Fire fee,” Olson said.
“People don’t feel they should be paying the Cal Fire fee and a local district tax.”
Cal Fire instituted its fire fee in 2011 and, since that time, the state fire agency has been collecting between $115 and $150 on every habitable structure within the State Responsibility Area. Public backlash has been fierce and a lawsuit is in the works attempting to overturn the fee, which many view as a tax in disguise.
So when Calavaras Consolidated sent out its surveys, many district residents were in no mood to see another fire tax come their way and some confusion persisted related to Cal Fire’s fee.
“A lot of people did think that we were collecting that state fire fee and they were surprised we’re not getting a penny of that,” Olson said. “Our whole budget is based on what we collect from property taxes.”
Those property taxes bottomed out a few years back when the economy tanked and it’s been slow to recover, particularly in rural areas like Calaveras County. The trickle-down effect has been felt by many, including the fire districts.
“We’re down over 40 percent in our budget from where we were in 2007 and 2008,” Olsen said. “And we continue to drop. We still have a little bit of reserves set aside. But we’re dipping into those reserves on an annual basis and we can’t continue to do that. ”
The Rim Fire brought in some much-needed revenue when county strike teams were formed and sent to help battle the blaze. Calaveras Consoli-dated sent two engines and eight firefighters, which translated to a good chunk of revenue for the fire district.
“We made around $200,000, almost 50 percent of our budget,” Olson said. “I’m hoping we don’t have to hit our reserves this year because of that.”
But Olson is still worried about his fire district and other districts in the county, many of which are barely scraping by amid the economic difficulties still being felt throughout the county, state and nation.
“It’s going to be a challenging time for emergency services to deliver services in this county, and probably all over the state,” Olson said. “Emergency services, I don’t see how we’re going to be able to deliver. … (Expenses) haven’t gone down, they’ve gone up.”
Olson isn’t altogether discouraged by the survey results, however. Instead, he now knows what he needs to do to shift the tide and keep his fire district financially viable, and that may include another go at a tax assessment in the coming years.
“We need to regroup and figure out what’s going to work for everybody,” he said. “And we need to get out and make sure the community knows who we are and what we’re doing.”