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Calif. city could lose 3 of its firefighters unless voters choose to tax themselves

If passed by a two-thirds majority of Cambria residents, the resulting tax would raise approximately $378,000 a year for the firefighters


By FireRescue1 Staff

CAMBRIA, Calif. — Cambria residents will vote in June on a proposed annual tax of $62.15 per parcel to pay for three full-time firefighters.

All parcels in the Cambria Community Services District would be affected, not just developed parcels, the CCSD Board of Directors decided Thursday, Feb. 8.

Directors voted 4-0, with Harry Farmer absent, to place the measure on the June 5 primary ballot. It would allow the Cambria Fire Department to maintain its current staffing levels after a two-year federal grant expires this year.

If passed by a two-thirds majority of Cambria residents, the resulting tax would raise approximately $378,000 a year for the firefighters. That’s a 26 percent increase from the $300,000 figure that was included in the plan as originally presented three days earlier.

“That wasn’t a number that was just grabbed out of the air,” General Manager Jerry Gruber said Monday of the $300,000. “It was a number that was previously determined by the last finance manager, Patrick O’Reilly, and then confirmed by Rudy Hernandez,” the current finance manager.

The $300,000 in revenue would have increased annually based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

Hernandez said Thursday, however, that he and staff members took a second look at the numbers Tuesday and arrived at the higher figure by using “a thorough and realistic analysis.” He said the new number accounts for the possibility that firefighters might qualify for higher steps on the salary scale, and that resulting pay increases might outpace increases in the CPI.

If funding fell short, Hernandez said, “we didn’t want to come back and ask the board to improve another ballot measure or go to the general fund.”

The tax would have been $50 per parcel under the previous estimate, a little more than $12 less than the levy under the higher figure.

Two proposals

Directors discussed that $50-per-parcel tax Monday, but declined to vote on that proposal and continued their meeting to Thursday after Vice President Jim Bahringer questioned the reliability of the resulting revenue stream.

A tax on all parcel owners, he said, could lead to diminishing revenues. As lots are retired or merged, he said, fewer parcels will be available to tax. If only developed parcels were taxed, on the other hand, revenues could rise. “If someone improves a parcel, more money will come in” because it will become subject to the tax, Bahringer said Thursday.

In response to these concerns, staffers prepared an alternative plan following Monday’s meeting that would have raised money only from owners of developed parcels.

Because fewer parcels would have been taxed under this plan, a higher levy would have been needed to raise enough money to pay for the firefighters. District Counsel Tim Carmel said Thursday that owners of developed parcels would have needed to pay $96.21 per lot in order to raise the $378,000.

Ultimately, however, directors did not vote on this plan.

Objections

Their decision to approve the all-parcels tax instead came after members of the audience argued against exempting undeveloped lots from the tax.

“Fire doesn’t care” whether a lot is developed or not, “it just burns,” audience member Allyson Dallmann said. “All parcels are at risk, regardless of ownership, therefore all owners should share in the cost of protecting our community.”

Director Aaron Wharton raised similar concerns. If a burning tree from a vacant parcel next door were to fall on his house, he said, “it’s an unimproved lot that possibly caused a fire on my lot.”

“The unimproved lot owner isn’t contributing anything to the safety of the community, and he’s getting the benefit of” the added fire protection, Wharton said.

Motivations

But Bahringer argued that the board was only considering the measure in response to federal rules regarding structure fires — which don’t affect undeveloped lots. Those rules require that a minimum of two firefighters remain outside a burning structure while at least two others to enter, something that wouldn’t be possible without maintaining current staffing levels.

“This is really a structure-fire program,” Bahringer said. “It has nothing to do with clearing brush on an empty lot. It has nothing to do with paramedics.”

Fire Chief William Hollingsworth agreed that the so-called “two in, two out” rule was a key motivation for the department to seek the funding. But he added that all parcel owners benefit from having more firefighters on duty.

“We are an all-hazard department,” he said, pointing out that members of the department perform such tasks as weed abatement, ocean rescues, answering medical calls and changing smoke detectors. “Less than 10 percent of what we do is actually respond to fires,” Hollingsworth said. As to the request for funding, he added, “To say that it’s only for structure fires, I think, is possibly misleading.”

When directors finished their discussion, Wharton moved that the board support a ballot measure to tax all 6,082 parcels within the district, and Director David Pierson seconded a motion. It passed unanimously. Wharton and Pierson will write a voter pamphlet argument in favor of the measure; that argument which will be presented to the board at its next regular meeting, set for 2 p.m. Feb. 22 in the Cambria Veterans Memorial Building.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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