Madera County supervisors want public safety tax on March ballot

Madera County considers public safety tax to bolster firefighting

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Madera County supervisors approved Tuesday a plan for a public safety tax but will wait until March to hold the election because they want voters to be able to focus on the plan when they go to the polls.

Supervisor Tom Wheeler, whose district covers the foothill and mountain areas, communities that have been hit hardest by fires and could face severe fire danger because of the large number of dead trees, said placing the measure on November’s ballot would have gotten it less attention from voters.

Supervisors voted 5-0 to move forward with community meetings with the intention of taking the tax to voters in March.

The added cost of moving the vote to March is about $30,000, he said.

In January, supervisors approved hiring a company to prepare polling for the public safety tax measure to evaluate the amount county residents would support. The measure will not include the cities of Madera and Chowchilla.

The company, VRPA Technologies, was hired to discuss the county’s budget shortfall that is most evident in fire protection but also law enforcement.

A sales-tax increase would require more than two-thirds voter support to pass. In surveying done by the firm, 76 percent supported or leaned in support of a half-cent sales tax increase, and 72 percent backed or leaned in support of a 1-cent sales tax hike. The county’s sales tax would climb from 8 cents to 9.

Supervisors support the 1-cent hike because it would provide adequate staffing for the first time in decades, Wheeler said.

$161 millionPotential revenue over 20-year life of 1-cent public safety tax

Overall, assuming a 4 percent growth rate, the 1-cent sales tax would generate $161 million over its 20-year life. A 3 percent growth rate would raise just under $141 million. The measure would expire in 2037.

Wheeler and tax supporter Bill Ritchey said the half-cent sales tax wouldn’t be adequate to hire staffing needed for the county.

Eighty percent of the funding will be dedicated to fire protection and 20 percent to law enforcement.

The revenues from the sales tax would pay for three new fire stations with five new positions per station and new fire engines. The new stations would be in North Fork, Bass Lake and the Fairmead area north of Madera.

Hiring new firefighters would increase staffing from one firefighter to two in five stations. Tax revenues also will reimburse costs for volunteer/paid-call firefighters for medical calls and offer more incentives for those firefighters.

With more firefighters, the hope is that insurance premiums for home policies will drop and that fire departments will improve response times and coverage.

Dale Drozen, a Madera County resident, said supervisors shouldn’t use the insurance rating as a way to attract votes for the measure because there is no guarantee that premiums will drop significantly.

“It may only matter if you’re close to a fire station,” Drozen said. “Don’t oversell it.”

Nancy Koeperich, the Madera-Merced-Mariposa Unit fire chief, said there are no guarantees that premiums will drop, but one way to move in that direction is to improve staffing and access to water.

Wheeler said the average resident pays $200 to $300 per year with the sales tax at 8 percent. The new measure would add only about $25 to $35 to their tax burden, he said.

He said residents have seen insurance rates rise exponentially in some parts of the county, if they can even obtain it. Insurance rates could potentially drop if the sales tax passes, Wheeler said, helping to offset the higher sales taxes.

The Madera County Sheriff’s Office would get a 10 percent increase in deputies, phasing in nine new officers over six years if the tax measure is approved.

Additional deputies would improve coverage and response times.

“The best thing about this is that the Board of Supervisors is not making the decision, it’s the citizens that will make the decisions,” Wheeler said.

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin