MADERA COUNTY — The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously today to hold a special election on Mar. 7, 2017, to put the proposed one-cent public safety tax before the voters of the unincorporated areas of Madera County.
Revenues from the tax would be dedicated exclusively to funding the Madera County Fire Department and the Sheriff’s Office, split 80 percent to 20 percent, respectively.
VRPA Technologies was contracted by the County to conduct public outreach to gauge the level of public support for the tax. Over the past several months, Georgiena Vivian, president of VRPA, has been meeting with local stakeholders and community leaders, and making presentations at Town Hall meetings. She reports a high level of support for the measure, which requires a two-thirds majority to pass.
The City of Madera voted in favor of the same type of tax on the Nov. 8 ballot with over 80 percent approval. The March election will include only those voters who live outside incorporated cities.
Staffing levels at the Madera County Fire Department have not changed since the 1920s, says Vivian, when the population was only 1/10 of what it is today.
As standards have risen and technology has changed, no mechanism has been put in place over the years to fund the needed upgrades and hire more firefighters to serve a much larger population. Much of Madera County’s fire equipment is decades old and well past the date it should have been retired.
To put a hard point on the current situation, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Troy Cheek pointed out at a recent Town Hall meeting that there is only one firefighter on duty at any given time at Station 12 in Oakhurst. The number of Paid Cal Firefighters (PCFs), or volunteers, has dropped drastically, and staffing levels have a seriously adverse effect on homeowners insurance.
The Expenditure Plan for the proposed tax addresses these issues by putting more firefighters in existing stations, staffing several on a 24-hour basis — including North Fork and Bass Lake — paying our PCFs for medical aid responses and training, and purchasing their necessary gear.
Putting the proposed tax before the voters has been in the planning stages for nearly a year.
On Jan. 26, 2016, the Madera County Board of Supervisors unanimously authorized the County Administrative Officer to seek professional services to assist in the preparation of placing the measure on the ballot, and conduct public outreach.
A one-cent sales tax, if approved by voters in the unincorporated areas of Madera County, would be specifically aimed at funding the County Fire Department and County Sheriff’s Office to improve response times, increase and maintain adequate staffing levels, and enhance services levels within both departments.
The sales tax would be collected for 20 years (October 2017 through September 2037) only in the unincorporated areas of Madera County, and would require a two-thirds majority to pass.
This would be a dedicated tax, and revenues would be placed in a separate account for disbursement only to the Fire Department and Sheriff’s Office, with approximately 80 percent of the funds allocated to the Fire Department and approximately 20 percent going to the Sheriff’s Office..
The sales tax increase must be used to supplement — and not to supplant or replace — existing funds or other resources. The tax is estimated to generate an average of just over $8 million per year for a total of $164 million during the duration of the sales tax measure period.
Less than one percent of the revenue generated would go toward administration, including the establishment of an oversight committee, amending the plan as needed based of actual revenues generated, and conducting an annual public audit to ensure that the funds are being spent as directed in the Expenditure Plan.
The Ad Hoc Committee that developed the Plan is comprised of two Board of Supervisor members, Tom Wheeler and Brett Frazier; the Madera County Administrator Eric Fleming; Madera County Fire Department and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) representatives; the Sheriff’s Office; citizen advocate Bill Ritchey; and other agency staff.
If the measure passes, the Oversight Committee will by made up of seven members — one appointed by each of the Supervisors, plus two at-large members.
The public safety needs identified by the Committee during the development of the plan include:
County Fire Department
- Additional Paid Firefighters
- Additional Equipment
- Enhanced Training
- New and Enhanced Fire Station Services
- Enhanced Fire Standards of Coverage and Response Times
- Increased Paid Call Firefighter Services and Support
- Potentially Reduced Home Insurance Policy Rates
- Enhanced Dead Tree Removal
County Sheriff’s Office
- Improved Response Times
- Increased Sheriff Protection Coverage
- Reduced Crime
- Reduced Traffic Accidents
- Safer County Environment
- Enhanced Community Involvement and Education
The Plan points out that firefighting, emergency response, and law enforcement standards and techniques are constantly improving. Thus, government and private insurers’ standards for service levels, equipment and facilities are constantly being upgraded, and investment is needed to meet these standards.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) sets standards for fire protection services, and currently has more than 300 codes and standards. As NFPA standards and State and federal laws designed to implement these standards have evolved, neither the County nor higher levels of government have provided funding to improve the staffing, equipment and training needed to meet these higher standards.
Thus over time, the County has fallen behind in terms of:
- Standards of coverage and response times
- Essential services structures
- Meeting fire engine and other equipment standards
The Plan goes on to address issues of insurance and medical response.
“It is important to note that improving fire safety capabilities to meet current standards will offer benefits to homeowners even when they are not directly affected by a fire. Not meeting NFPA standard currently results in poor ratings by insurance companies; this results in annual policy premiums that are $500 – $3500 higher for Madera property owners. Thus, passage of the Measure may result in reduced home insurance policy rates, a benefit shared by all property owners.
“The Measure will also improve firefighters’ ability to respond to medical emergencies. In the unincorporated areas, ambulance services are scarce, and firefighters typically serve as first responders to accidents and other serious medical events. With many medical emergencies, every second counts.
“For example, a stroke or accident that impairs blood flow to the brain can result in brain damage or death in minutes. Thus, by improving response times, and first-responder skills and tools, this measure can save lives.”
It is important to understand that Cal Fire and Madera County Fire Department are not the same thing — they are two separate entities. Cal Fire is a state agency that is contracted to oversee the operation of the Madera County Fire Department. The County Fire Department is made up of PCFs (volunteers) who are not career firefighters. They are only paid to respond to fires and accidents, but 2/3 of their responses are for medical aids, for which they are not currently compensated.
PCFs are also required to go through the same 200 hours of rigorous training as Cal Fire firefighters (see links at the end of this article).
Also, the approximately $135 fire prevention fee paid by property owners in California’s SRA goes directly to the state general fund, and is not available for building out any county fire departments.
The proposed sales tax is not the only piece of the broader puzzle of what it will take to fund the Madera County Fire Department and Sheriff’s Office. Other components include development impact fees from new subdivisions, grant money and other revenue sources.
VPRA Technologies has put together several very comprehensive presentations that lay out the reasons for the tax, how the monies would be collected, administered and distributed, and answer any questions the public may have. Also included are the questions asked and the result obtained during a phone survey of likely voters in March 2016.
To view the Expenditure Plan for the proposed Public Safety Tax, click here.
To view the PowerPoint presentation on the proposed Public Safety Tax, click here.
For Frequently Asked Questions on the proposed Public Safety Tax, click here.
To learn more about the Madera County Fire Department and the challenges it faces, please read the articles below.