Volunteer fire dept.'s seek share of public safety tax

Many fire agencies have sought additional funding, but the requests are turning to demands as they struggle with rising costs and declines in donations and volunteers


The Press Democrat

MENDOCINO COUNTY, Calif. — More than two decades ago, California voters passed a half-cent sales tax measure that promised to boost funding for public safety agencies, including police, fire, jails and public prosecutors.

Television ads featuring footage of fires that raged through Southern California a week before the November 1993 election have been credited for boosting its passage with 58 percent of the vote.

But for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, fire districts in the state have largely been left out of Proposition 172’s financial equation, which statewide earns more than $2.5 billion annually. The bulk of the tax money — aimed at offsetting losses incurred by cities and counties when the state in 1992 shifted billions of dollars in property tax revenue from local governments to schools — goes to law enforcement.

“Why it did not go to fire, nobody really knows. At least no one presently around,” said Ernie Loveless, chairman of the Schell-Vista Fire Protection District board and the board of directors for the Sonoma County fire district association. The association has been in negotiations with the county for funding, which is dependent on the results of a fire study, he said.

Many fire agencies have long sought additional funding, but the requests are turning to demands as the agencies struggle with rising costs and declines in donations and volunteers.

“The old volunteer system is just in collapse,” said Dave Roderick, a board member of the Hopland Volunteer Fire Protection District who has spearheaded the latest effort in Mendocino County to get what many fire departments consider their fair share of Proposition 172 revenues.

Taking a cue from Sonoma County, a majority of Mendocino County’s 21 fire districts have recently joined a new organization — the Mendocino County Association of Fire Districts — in the hope of gaining more bargaining power with the county.

Fire departments have suffered financially in part because “they don’t shout loud enough,” Roderick said.

The organization has met with several county officials and plans to lobby the Board of Supervisors for 20 percent of the estimated $7 million the county collects under Proposition 172.

Roderick said the group’s request is backed by the contention that the county’s decision to exclude fire agencies from the funding was “illegal.” The board passed a resolution in 1993 reclassifying public safety as including only the offices of the sheriff, district attorney, probation and the jail.

“At the very least, it’s undemocratic,” Roderick said of that move.

But even if they get the Proposition 172 funding, an estimated $1.4 million, that probably won’t be enough in the long run to keep fire districts afloat, he said.

“The need is bigger than that,” he said.

Supervisor Dan Hamburg has met with the group and expects the funding issue to be presented to the full board in the near future.

He agrees there is a crisis among small fire agencies, which are critical to the safety of rural communities, like the ones in Lake County, where wildland fires have ravaged tens of thousands of acres and sent more than 1,900 residents fleeing for safety.

“There’s no doubt this whole volunteer system is in crisis. It’s simply not sustainable any longer,” Hamburg said.

For decades, small fire districts were able to get by with donations, fundraisers and a small slice of property taxes in some cases. But requirements for equipment and training have increased costs, creating financial gaps that can no longer be filled by bake sales and barbecues, Roderick said.

There also are fewer people willing to volunteer for a tough, dangerous job that pays nothing yet requires significant training. Those who are willing may have employers who won’t allow them to leave at a moment’s notice.

“Our community has drastically changed,” said Jim Little, chief of the Laytonville Fire Department. Many of its volunteers once worked for the now-shuttered Harwood Mill, which was happy to let people off work to fight fires, he said.

“We don’t have the employers in town who will let them go like the mill did,” Little said.

People also are less likely to donate financially to the Fire Department, he said.

“There is a lot of money in the woods,” Little said, referring to marijuana production. “But those people are not as community minded as the prior generation.”

Little several years ago proposed that the county set up a tax program for marijuana production but it was leery of delving into that quagmire at the time. New state regulations aimed at regulating and taxing pot are now are in the pipeline, making that a possibility.

“Maybe we can use some of that new marijuana money to fund fire departments,” Hamburg said, noting it would be difficult to wrest Proposition 172 money or a portion of the county’s general fund away from the current recipients. The sheriff already has voiced displeasure at the idea, Roderick said.

“It seems like we need to come up with some kind of new funding mechanism to keep the districts afloat,” Hamburg said.

Copyright 2015 The Press Democrat
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