Home » Community » State Constitution Doesn’t Require County Fire Protection

State Constitution Doesn’t Require County Fire Protection

MADERA COUNTY — Bill Ritchey is serving as chairman of the Citizens, Firefighters and Citizens for Measure L 2017 committee.

He has spent the past several years working with residents, firefighters and County officials to identify the challenges faced by the Madera County Fire Department and the Paid Call Firefighters (PCFs or volunteers), and has been involved in formulating a plan to address the problems. He has also served as a first responder trainer and has decades of experience in critical care and trauma.

We asked Mr. Ritchey to talk about the current situation with the Madera County Fire Department, and why he feels Measure L is so important — 

“Three summers ago, when the first devastating fires hit, I started listening to the scanner. Even after the fires were controlled, and supposedly returned to ‘normal’ (whatever that is), I was appalled at the intense call load that Madera County Fire is summoned to, and what a sole firefighter on an engine is expected to do.

It was 30 years ago that I was a young paramedic on the ambulance, and it was the same way then, when the population of Madera County was only about 55,000. There was no Raley’s, or Vons, or McDonalds in Oakhurst then, and only a 4-way stop at Highways 41 & 49. And in the 80s, it was exactly as it had been since since 1928, when Madera County signed its contract with Cal Fire.

Now the population is 157,000, and the only thing that has changed in 30 years is that we have lost about 200 volunteer firefighters. The few hundred volunteers solely staffed 10 stations. Now there are less than 70 active Paid Call Firefighters and they staff 8 stations on a call-out basis — Dairyland and Coarsegold have been closed. The average response rate of all volunteer companies is about 47 percent. Does this mean having a fire engine respond to your fire, heart attack, or car wreck should only occur 47 percent of the time?

If a person in Madera County needs a fire engine, over 70 percent of the time it will be for a life-threatening medical condition, as firefighters are medical first responders — trained to restore breathing, circulation, defibrillate a dying heart, and stop bleeding. In my career in emergency medical and trauma care, I see people live (or die) everyday by how quickly they receive prompt first response and resuscitation.

The National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) has standards for urban, suburban, emerging suburban and rural areas. Madera County FAILS miserably by all such standards of staffing and suburban and rural response. This staffing is unsafe for the public, and unsafe for the firefighter on an engine.

So I told myself I was going to make it my mission with 100 percent effort to do something about this problem. And fixing the problem requires defining it and educating the public. That is what I have tried to do.

This current Board of Supervisors (BOS) knows the problem has been going on for decades; but, this is the FIRST Board to try to reverse the downward spiral. When I was a young paramedic, the Board said, “We’re a small county, we don’t need it and we can’t afford it.” In the 50s and 60s when other counties were forming fire protection districts, Madera County turned its head and never looked forward.

In 2009, an earlier Board (which included Tom Wheeler) ordered a comprehensive study from the well-respected emergency services consultant, Citygate and Associates. The study cited that our County Fire Department was underfunded about $10 million in staffing, $10 million in fire apparatus, and $20 million in needed facilities. They suggested the County gradually increase its staffing and numbers of stations, and along with that, a “way to pay for it” (read “tax”). It has always been known that the County didn’t have the resources to implement such a plan, that’s why it was NEVER done. Then the recession hit. The County ended up laying off over 400 employees to avoid bankruptcy, and nothing changed.

In 2012, a report by local retired Cal Fire Chief and former Supervisor Gary Gilbert informed the Board that the decline in volunteers was reaching a crisis, and made several suggestions for recruitment and retention of PCFs. At the top of his recommendations was to increase financial incentives for PCFs, aiding recruitment and retention by recognizing and meeting the demanding training requirements, and the unpaid responses to medical emergencies.

The number one priority in the Citygate report was to fund a second firefighter, 24/7, at all county stations. Paying for the upgrades — the kind of money we are talking about (millions) — far exceeds general fund resources. Citygate suggested the following funding options: development agreements (done), fire facility impact fees (done), make new developments pay their way (happening), community facilities districts, benefit assessment districts, and general or special taxes. All require some form of consent (or dissent) by the citizens to enact. In an effort to earn the trust of the public and ensure allocation of revenues ONLY to public safety, the BOS unanimously voted to place a “special” tax on the ballot. That is Measure L. Its revenues are dedicated ONLY to fire and sheriff, and that can’t be changed by the BOS.

All new developments (Riverstone, Tesoro Viejo, Gunner, North Millerton), residential and commercial pay. In fact, they will pay A LOT more (on their property tax bills) in their community facilities districts for fire and sheriff personnel, equipment and facilities. In turn, they will also receive a much higher level of service. These new developments are structured to operate at contemporary standards.

Cal Fire is the State agency that is contracted by Madera County to provide fire protection and is responsible for the operation of the Madera County Fire Department, which is a separate entity, and is staffed by Paid Call Firefighters. Madera County is responsible to fund their own fire department.

What happens if this measure fails? Cal Fire pulls out? Madera County Fire is volunteer only? Emergency tax is implemented? And who pays for that? Not the tourists. It falls right back squarely on the citizens only.

If this measure fails, here are the scenarios for the fire department going forward:

First, we will never receive the level of staffing and service new county developments will receive.

Second, I would be very worried that Cal Fire, in the future (and with proper notice, a year or more), may choose to end its contract with Madera County for local fire protection. It is an unsafe working condition for single firefighters, and by their rules, all new engines must be staffed with a minimum of two firefighters, 24/7. It presents a great liability to their agency and the State.

Third, Madera County could be faced with funding an entire infrastructure of fire protection — administration, support, training, human resources, pensions and health care. This has been done with mixed results in Tulare County.

Fourth, and the most likely would be a Benefit Assessment District. The BOS would declare a district (likely the entire county, minus the new developments) and could pass the cost of services on to property owners. This requires no vote of registered voters, but may be blocked by a protest election. A protest vote is a “by mail” tally of property owners who protest with a “no” vote to the assessment. The property owner does not receive a single vote, but a weighted vote based on the service benefit, usually equated to size or type of parcel. Complicated as it may be, if faced with the collapse of the County Fire Department, I believe a protest vote would fail to garner the votes to block the assessment.

If a Benefits Assessments District is formed, only property owners will pay. Non-property owners, renters, transients and tourists won’t pay for any of the services they use. I estimate the property assessment would have to be at least $160 average to get us to the $5 million in revenue Measure L will provide in its first full year. The average annual estimate is $8 million, and will likely rise as new residents move in to the tens of thousand of new homes being built in new developments.

Lastly, unlike cities, California counties have NO constitutional requirement to provide fire protection to its citizens. Such an area actually exists in Western San Joaquin County, where there is no designated fire department. Local fire protection in the SRA would minimally exist by Cal Fire wildland fire stations, as available, as a secondary mission to their primary State mission of wildland fire protection

Faced with a funding crisis, the BOS can look to other areas of the general fund to cut. County Clerk? Assessor’s Office? County Ag Extension? A whopping $2 million funds the county libraries. Do you want to close the libraries to fund a second firefighter or additional deputy sheriffs to avoid closing stations? Some cities and counties have done that to fund public safety. I would hate for it to come to that in Madera County.

Some opponents correctly point out that 40 percent of property insurers do not use ISO. This does not mean that all property owners can get insurance. Some can’t, and some are paying thousands of dollars. This can have a negative effect on property values, and affect resale.

Madera County is a large county of diverse and isolated terrain. I emphasize “a” (meaning one) and diverse (varied within one). The County fire department cannot plan for expansion without a minimal standard of coverage. The Chowchilla “area” station, and the “Dairyland” station near Chowchilla lost its staffing to the Ranchos and Oakhurst in the 80s. That area is covered with two volunteers. They continue to pay county taxes, without the benefit the rest of the county receives.

Merced County often is asked to come into that part of the County to respond to emergencies. The City of Chowchilla provides mutual aid, with volunteers only.
And Chowchilla Women’s Prison may respond, if available, within a smaller area of response; keeping in mind their primary mission is to respond to the prisons.

Long response times have their consequences — total loss fires, and loss of life. The losses simply become a news article or statistic. People, though, rarely contemplate their need for response, until the unthinkable happens — to them.

Measure L was a lengthy process; I can attest to it, I lived it. Due diligence was performed at every level. There was pressure for the City and County to join together on a measure for the November ballot, but their needs were totally different. The City’s spending plan was much easier to draft. With the varied unincorporated areas and communities of Madera County and many deficiencies, not so. The city wanted a general tax, with a 50 percent + 1 margin, no restrictions on the money, and no oversight. The County wanted the revenue restricted to public safety spending with citizen’s oversight and annual audits of every penny.

By the time estimates, planning, education and public hearings occurred, there was no way to meet the deadline for November. No way. I guess the easy way would have been for the County to do the same as Madera City, make it a general tax — it would have easily passed with a 50 percent + 1 margin.

Since Proposition 13 passed in 1978, the State has continued to rob local government of revenues, and fund less and less of local services. The SRA fee, enacted in 2011, earned the nickname of “the rural fire tax.” The truth is, the legislature never intended it to fund fire protection, only fire prevention. It has been challenged in court, where the legal wrangling continues. Only recently did the State start releasing money locally to help with dead tree removal. This one move by the State did more damage than is known to local government and county residents; making it more difficult to fund and provide local fire protection.

The state won’t fund local fire protection, and they wont abolish the SRA fee unless forced by the courts. Measure L, if passed, will be collected locally, spent locally, and committed to sheriff and fire services to the benefit of Madera County residents. And only Madera County residents.

The opponents, who claim the fire department needs $20 million dollars are quick to say “cut the budget to pay for it.” Where? They only criticize but offer no solutions. They won’t go on record with a “real cut” in the general fund, because they know the money isn’t there. They will only go on record saying “cut welfare” knowing full well that can’t be done. John Pero, who is fighting Measure L, claims he is a constitutionalist. I guess if he knew the State Constitution does not require Counties to provide fire protection, he wouldn’t want a fire department at all.

Bill Ritchey is a resident of Raymond. With a Masters of Science degree in Nurse Anesthesia, he has been an anesthesia provider for 21 years, and has worked extensively providing trauma and critical care anesthesia at the regional trauma center in Fresno. He is very involved in advocacy for local emergency services, and helped formulate policy for pre-hospital advanced life support by ambulance personnel and fire department first responders in Madera County. He also served as a first responder trainer for Madera City and County Fire Departments.

Leave a Reply

Sierra News Online

Sierra News Online