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Wheeler: Hike in TOT Could Fund New Fire Reduction District

MADERA — Supervisor Tom Wheeler is promoting a proposal which he says could help provide local home owners some relief from sky-high insurance costs. The plan, Wheeler adds, could also help reduce fire risk.

The proposal comes at a time when many in the mountain community are struggling to pay for and maintain homeowners’ insurance — and concern is only growing as recent fire dangers and the ‘new normal’ of PG&E Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) have impacted the area in the past few weeks.

Earlier this summer, the Madera County Board of Supervisors approved a plan to hire a consult to investigate potential support for a ballot measure to increase by 2 percent Madera County’s Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) — which is paid mostly by out-of-area visitors for things like hotel rooms and airbnb rentals.

Grassroots LAB, a Sacramento-based “research institute,” is handling the initial survey work for the County as well as crafting the wording of a possible ballot measure.

The proposed 2 percent hike in the TOT — which Wheeler suggested could possibly be accompanied by matching grants should the ballot measure pass — would create a Fire Reduction District that would assist private property owners with reducing fire fuel loads.

Wheeler says the new Fire Reduction District would ease the onerous administrative, insurance and permit costs to property owners involved in removing hazardous fire fuel. The new district could also coordinate with CAL FIRE in regards to brushing equipment and burning and/or removal of the material.

Wheeler points out that “statewide, TOT tax by county is anywhere from 9 to 17 percent.”

“Currently, Madera County is 11 percent,” Wheeler says. “We aren’t asking for anything extravagant here.”

Regarding homeowners’ insurance, Wheeler himself has lost at least two policies recently and explains how certain factors in the Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating of an area are assessed. “They can see from aerial photographs and just driving around how dense the fire fuel load is here. It increases our ISO rating and policies are cancelled.”

ISO ratings are also determined by the number of fire stations in an area — and how many fire fighters staff each station.

The main goal of the measure, Wheeler says, would be to reduce fire risk, also resulting in lower policy rates and fewer cancelled policies.

As for the recent PSPS, Wheeler says, “I don’t blame PG&E at all. They’ve done more forest management around their lines in the last five years than they’ve done in the last 20. There’s so much fuel load they simply can’t keep up. I blame the environmentalists who’ve made it impossible … to manage the fuel load.”

When contacted about the proposed ballot measure, Madera County Visitor’s Bureau CEO Rhonda Salisbury said, “I am definitely looking forward to hearing more about the increase and how it can benefit the mountain communities.”

Wheeler said the County’s aim is to have the TOT increase proposal before Madera County voters in November 2020 .

After the consultant presents its findings to the board, supervisors are expected to hold public hearings on the proposed ballot measure some time next year.

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