MADERA COUNTY – With homeowners being hit with huge increases in their insurance rates, and concerns over aging fire equipment and the diminishing ranks of Paid Call Firefighters, the Board of Supervisors is considering ways to address this growing problem.
To that end, the Board voted 5-0 today to approve a resolution directing staff to explore the feasibility of putting a sales tax measure on the November ballot, aimed at funding the Fire Department and Sheriff’s Office.
“This isn’t a resolution that places a measure on the ballot,” says Chief Administrative Officer Eric Fleming. “That may come in the future if the Board chooses to go that direction.”
The resolution directs Fleming and his staff to seek out a consultant and determine what it would cost to do outreach, gather opinions and conduct research on whether voters might be likely to approve a public safety tax that would go directly to fire and law enforcement.
Over the past year, the Board has received specific presentations from the Sheriff’s Department and Fire Department on how additional funds could be used to improve response times and service levels within both departments. One possible piece of the puzzle is a dedicated sales tax, which is seen as the most equitable of any tax option, since it would come from everyone, including tourists and those who do not own homes. It would also be collected and administered locally, and decided upon by residents of Madera County.
“This is the purest form of taxation with representation, putting it on a ballot measure,” said District 1 Supervisor Brett Fraizer during discussions at today’s board meeting. “But before you even do that, you go out and poll, and if only 20 percent are in favor, you know right then that there’s no need to move forward.”
If the measure were to go before the voters, all supervisors agree that it would have their blessing only if the funds go to fire and police protection, and nothing else.
“I won’t support a measure that doesn’t keep the money only where the voters say it should go,” said Fraizer. “We are a self-help county, and when the state isn’t doing what we need, we do it ourselves. But the voters have to say yes.”
The exact amount of any proposed sales tax has yet to be determined.
“That will be part of the conversation with the Fire Department and Sheriff’s Office,” says CAO Fleming. “When they put their final plans together for what it will cost to get to the next level of staffing, we’ll have a better idea what it will take. The last thing we want to do is not have enough to get us to the point we need to be, and that will become clear as we go through the process.”
Fleming anticipates that professional services for research and outreach could be as much as $200,000, but he will come back to the Board with firm numbers after meeting with consultants.
“Staff will work with different stakeholder groups to see if there is a way to finance some of the costs through sources outside of the County’s general fund,” Fleming told the Board. “Some portion of the total cost will likely need to be financed by the general fund.”
Bill Ritchey, a Raymond resident and 35-year veteran of the ranks of first responders, expressed his concerns over the risk to life and property posed by the dire situation in which the County’s Fire Department now finds itself after years of financial neglect. He also cited the negative impact to property values due to skyrocketing homeowner’s insurance rates, and urged the Board to let the people decide.
“Voters should be given the opportunity to decide whether or not they want a tax,” said Ritchey. “If the public has the opportunity to decide, then I feel this board has met its obligation. Put it before the people and present the deficiencies and the possible solutions. I believe the Board of Supervisors has the responsibility to evaluate, assess and make recommendations to the public. I don’t believe ‘No’ is the solution to this problem.”
District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler stands firmly behind the idea, and sees it as win-win for property owners who are already paying the rural fire fee imposed by the State in 2012.
“What people are paying now for their insurance is extravagant compared to what this tax would be,” said Wheeler, noting that the high ISO ratings are causing huge rate increases, and in some cases, the inability of some to even get homeowner’s insurance. “You might pay a hundred dollars a year for this tax, but you’re paying thousands for your insurance.”
If the measure makes it to the ballot, the role of the County will not be to encourage a vote one way or another, but rather to educate the public on exactly what they would be voting for or against.
The Board agreed to look into the feasibility of a ballot measure with a unanimous vote on the resolution.
CAO Fleming hopes to have a proposal and a preliminary estimate on costs to present to the Board at their next meeting on Feb. 9.