Higgins Fire Protection District proposes new tax measure

Fundraisers, budget cuts not enough to cure money woes
By: Andrew Westrope, Staff Writer
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The Higgins Fire Protection District proposed a new funding measure last week to compensate for a consistent loss of revenue over the past three years.

Less than eight months after voters narrowly turned down Measure B, a similar tax increase to raise money for Higgins Fire, the district board of trustees approved a resolution on Wednesday to hold a new special election for “Measure O” via mail-in ballot on May 7. Passing the measure will require at least two-thirds of the vote from the district, which includes more than 12,000 residents in 90 square miles of southern Nevada County along a four-mile stretch of Highway 49.

The measure would impose a special tax of $125 per residential structure, in place of the current rate of $25 imposed in 1980, as well as $40 per 1,000 square feet for commercial buildings and $45 per 1,000 square feet for industrial buildings. If passed, this tax would be effective for 10 years, starting with the 2013-2014 fiscal year and ending with the 2022-2023 fiscal year, at which time the previous rate would be reinstated.

A notice of election published by the Nevada County clerk-recorder’s office on Friday said the tax dollars would be put in an account solely “for the purpose of reopening closed District fire stations and/or funding emergency medical services, fire suppression, rescue, and other emergency services provided by the District, with all funds staying in our community…”

The Nevada County Clerk will accept written arguments of up to 300 words for or against the measure until 5 p.m. Thursday.

Higgins Fire Protection District Board Chairman John Boykin, Jr. said Measure O is different from the previous proposal in that Measure B was indefinite and included a provision to raise the tax according to cost of living. The new election is expected to cost the district approximately $7,000, but Boykin said the board was behind the measure – three members approved on Wednesday and two were absent – because the district needs it.

“(The election) was very close in 2012, number one, and number two, I think there just wasn’t enough education on what the impacts were going to be,” he said. “I had people come up to me or call me and say, ‘We didn’t realize that our response times were going to go (up),’ so I think it’s just educating, and I think it’s the best thing for the district.”

On the heels of a fundraiser at Chevys Fresh Mex restaurant in Auburn last Thursday, Higgins Fire Auxiliary member Ruth Fitzgerald agreed that a tax boost is exactly what the fire district needs. She did not know on Monday exactly how much the fundraiser made but believed the turnout was “very good” and commended Chevys’ assistance. Of the tax measure, she said she understands people’s mistrust about where the money would go, but was adamant that local dollars would stay local.

“It’s difficult when folks move up here from areas where you don’t touch base with your fire department. The people don’t think about it, but here we’re just a special district, and our money stays in our district,” Fitzgerald said.

Battalion Chief Jerry Good said the failure of Measure B last June forced the district to lay off six equivalent full-time positions and resort to keeping only two of its three stations open at a time – the Combie station full-time, the Dog Bar station on even months of the year and the McCourtney station on odd months of the year. He said there are now only four people on duty in any given 24-hour period, down from six prior to June 2012.

“Our response times have doubled to over 12 minutes,” Good said. “That’s an average.”

He added that while the firefighters earn wages comparable to other local stations and still receive scheduled and negotiated raises, the fire district’s employees on average “took a 24 percent reduction of benefits and salary prior to the layoffs.”

“In comparison, where a firefighter for one of the smaller districts like us is $40,000 a year, you go to San Francisco … and a basic firefighter makes $80,000,” Good said.

He explained the district’s financial struggles as an ongoing “domino effect” of the economic crisis that bottomed out in 2009 and 2010. As property values declined, Good said, so did the district’s main source of income.

“It’s supposedly flattening out this year for us, so what we’re currently getting this year could be what we get next fiscal year,” he said. “Homes are starting to sell, and the prices are coming up very slightly, so it could have an effect, possibly, but we won’t know for another couple months what the county assessor and everybody else’s projections are.”

In the meantime, as firefighters have had to make due without offsite training and a third fire engine, Good is concerned about their reliance on mutual aid from other departments.

“The appropriate amount of firefighters at a call for a structure fire is 12 to 14. Even though we do rely on volunteers and paid call firefighters, that’s an availability thing for them. Sometimes we might have to wait for … engines out of Placer County, or we’ll have to wait for engines from Alta Sierra or Grass Valley City,” he said. “If we don’t do something, we’re not going to be able to replace engines that need to be replaced, and we currently have one right now that needs to be replaced. And fundraisers are kind of tough … If you’re talking about a fire engine, you’re talking about over $300,000.”

He said the idea of consolidation has come up every year since he joined the department in 1980, but he does not believe it would be ideal for this community.

Good has also applied for a federal SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant to rehire those who were laid off, but he is skeptical about the odds of approval in the face of nationwide competition.