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Calif. residents seek sales tax increase for new fire stations, staffing

Santee residents are promoting a measure to gain $5.6M annually to build and staff two new fire stations


City of Santee Fire Department

By Lauren J. Mapp
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SANTEE, Calif. — A group of residents is seeking support for a ballot initiative to raise about $5.6 million annually for the Santee Fire Department through a half-cent sales tax.

Protect Santee organizers have started collecting signatures to get the measure on the November ballot, but will need at least 4,000 residents to sign on with their support to do so.

Santee fire Capt. Patrick Henry said the city’s growing population means the department needs to build and staff two new fire stations to reduce response times in the north and south ends of the city. Currently, those areas have average response times of at least eight minutes, which is more than double the National Fire Protection Association standard.

“Four minutes doesn’t sound very long until you hold your breath,” Henry said. “If you’re gonna hold your breath for eight minutes, there’s not a lot I can do for you. But if I get to you in four then there’s a chance we can save you.”

Santee Fire currently has 17 on-call firefighters working at its two stations, which are on Cottonwood Avenue and Carlton Oaks Drive. Funding raised through the half-cent tax would also be used to renovate those stations, and to increase Santee Fire staff. Henry said it will not be used for pay increases or benefits.

The Fire Department estimates it will cost nearly $55.5 million to build two new stations, rebuild Station 4 and pay for increased staffing.

If the half-cent sales tax initiative makes it onto the the November ballot and voters approve it, Henry said it will be in place for 15 years. The legislation will also include a citizens oversight committee, which Henry said will monitor how much funding is raised through the tax each year.

“That citizens oversight committee is going to monitor the metrics — if the sales revenue is $6.8 million a year, great, if it’s higher, let’s move the sunset up,” Henry said during a City Council meeting Feb. 14 . “The citizens oversight committee can dissolve the sales tax measure at any point in time.”

During its Feb. 14 meeting, the City Council received a report about the Protect Santee citizens initiative, during which Fire Chief Justin Matsushita said Fire Department staffing has remained stagnant from 2001 to 2024. Matsushita added that since 1964, Santee has only had a total of two stations at any given time.

Following the presentation, councilmembers spoke favorably of the initiative.

“I never want to tell a friend or family member ‘You know, it took too long for us to get there because we didn’t have enough fire stations,’ or ‘Oh, we didn’t have all the equipment we needed on a truck to put out that fire,’” Mayor John W. Minto said. “The people that we serve deserve better, the best that we can get.”

Several efforts in recent years to build new fire stations in Santee have not come to fruition.

Fanita Ranch — a mixed-use development slated for 2,638 acres off Fanita Parkway — is supposed to have a new fire station and two trucks paid for by developers. But the project has faced a string of lawsuits, delaying it from breaking ground.

In October, the City Council unanimously approved a $1 million plan to build a temporary fire station on the Public Services Division Operations Yard at 9534 Via Zapador. That station will be comprised of two ready-made structures — a double-wide manufactured home will serve as a residence for the Fire Department’s paramedics and an apparatus bay will house the fire engines and paramedic emergency vehicles.

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