Madera County is poised to add fire stations, firefighters and firefighting volunteers if residents approve a 1-cent sales tax increase on March 7.
Measure L also will add more patrol deputies for the county with revenue raised from the additional sales tax. The unincorporated area’s sales tax would rise from 7.75 cents per dollar to 8.75 cents per dollar.
It will take more than two-thirds voter approval to put the sales tax into effect, and it has run into opposition. In a March election, where the sales tax issue is the only item on the ballot, some voters may be motivated on both sides.
“With two-thirds approval, there’s a hill to climb, but it’s only a hill and not a mountain,” said Thomas Holyoke, a Fresno State political science professor. “This is for police and fire, and people like police and fire, so if you’re going to raise taxes for anything it is one that’s easier to pass – not that it will be easy, but it will easier than most other tax measures to pass.”
$164 millionThe amount that would be raised for firefighters and deputies if Measure L passes
The sales tax is for unincorporated areas of Madera County, which would exclude the county’s only two cities, Madera and Chowchilla, but notably include Oakhurst. If approved, 80 percent of the revenue collected over 20 years will go for firefighting services – $132 million – and 20 percent for sheriff’s patrol deputies, about $32 million.
The effort has been underway for more than a year, and the priorities were laid out after consultations with the Madera County Fire Department and Cal Fire Merced-Madera-Mariposa Unit leadership.
There was added impetus for the Madera County effort as the drought wore on, millions trees of died in the Sierra and devastating fires struck in 2014 and 2015. The fires destroyed dozens of homes and businesses and cost millions of dollars to extinguish.
The Willow Fire in 2015 cost $19 million to fight, burning 5,700 acres and threatening hundreds of homes, while the Junction and Courtney fires in 2014 cost a combined $9.3 million to fight, according to Cal Fire, and destroyed dozens of homes, businesses and vehicles.
In the first year, revenue generated by the sales tax would add $5 million to a county fire budget that is $5.6 million for the fiscal year ending in June. When the tax expires in 2037, the tax proceeds will rise to more than $11 million annually.
The hiring process will rely on the flow of funding, but if the revenues are generated as expected, the first year will result in seven new sheriff’s deputies with an eighth hired in the second year. By the sixth year a ninth deputy is proposed.
Under the plan, new fire stations would be built near Bass Lake, North Fork and south of Chowchilla, near Highways 99 and 152. The fire stations will be phased in between years one and three and each of the new stations will be staffed.
Bill Ritchey, a Raymond resident and chairman of the committee supporting the sales tax, said the highest priority for new stations were for communities that had the most calls, longest response times and fewest volunteers, known as paid-call firefighters.
All existing and new stations would be staffed with two firefighters. Today, the stations each have one firefighter. The county now has five stations staffed with one professional firefighter. Approving the tax would result in two firefighters in eight stations.
Two firefighters for each station was part of a recommendation that dates back to a 2009 consultant’s report on fire services prepared for the county.
Another seven stations will continue to be staffed by paid-call firefighters as they are available.
Ritchey said a house fire last year next door to the unstaffed Bass Lake fire station required a call to firefighters in Mariposa and Fresno County to extinguish the blaze. The home burned to the ground.
The proposal also pays for incentives, such as clothing and training allowance, to add more paid-call firefighters.
“All big fires start small,” Ritchey said. “The more resources brought to bear earlier on the fire might mitigate the overall cost and size of a fire.”
Kicking the can?
Ahwahnee resident John Pero, who is leading a committee opposing the plan, said the county has had money in its budget to pay for improvements in public safety services but chose instead to use millions to raise salaries for employees.
He also said funding from the measure will not go far enough to fund all the county’s firefighting needs.
Pero agrees that a sales tax is a better way to raise revenue than a parcel tax, which would only be charged to property owners, but he thinks the county should attempt to raise revenues through permit fees for homeowners and others making money from Airbnb rentals. He also said the county could use its transient occupancy tax dollars more effectively.
Opponents suggest that county spending priorities are the problem. Pero cites a proposed monument entry sign for Madera County, funding for an off-highway vehicle park and the cost to pay a consultant for determining if Measure L could pass.
He said the need for a public-safety measure was necessitated by the county’s failure to properly fund public safety over many years.
“The can has been kicked down the road,” Pero said. “I do want the additional firefighters; it just comes down to how you fund it.”
I do want the additional firefighters; it just comes down to how you fund it.
John Pero, Measure L opponent
County Administrator Eric Fleming confirmed that the county raised employees’ salaries but that during the recession the county cut 300 employee positions. He said the county is working as effectively now with 1,100 employees as it did with 1,400 employees.
“When you do that the workload doesn’t go away,” he said.
County supervisors, he said, approved $4 million in raises last year after a wage survey was prepared for the county to examine whether Madera County employees were being paid on an equitable level with surrounding counties. Because of federal and state contributions, the general fund cost to the county is about $2 million.
Fleming said operating costs for the county are now $12 million less than before the recession, which means the county is in a better position by $8 million, including the raises.
Supervisors approved raising salaries, Fleming said, because employees are more efficient than they were before the recession, when raises were less likely to be given.
By improving wages, he said, the county spends less time recruiting and paying overtime because fewer employees leave, which also saves money.
“A big part of keeping the workforce stable is to stay competitive, and that costs money,” Fleming said.
Madera County tax
What: Public safety tax measure for unincorporated areas
When: March 7
How: Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.
Registration deadline: Tuesday
Last day to request vote-by-mail ballot: Feb. 28