Nevada County Consolidated Fire District officials have a question to which they're hoping registered voters in the district will say "yes."
Are they willing to approve an annual special tax - over and above property taxes and a special assessment levied in 2004 - to maintain the current level of fire department services?
The proposed special tax would increase the yearly assessment by $52 per residential parcel, $39 for second dwelling units and mobile homes, $26 for unimproved vacant/timber or agricultural land, and $.04 per square foot of commercial/office/industrial space.
The special tax requires 67 percent approval from voters.
Fire Chief Tim Fike said the special tax is needed because the district is currently operating at a $500,000 deficit, and faces an approximately $870,000 deficit for the 2011-12 fiscal year. He warned that a failure to pass the tax would mean a 20 percent reduction in personnel and the permanent closure of two fire stations.
Ballots for the special all-mail election are set to be mailed on Feb. 6, and the 22,000 registered voters in the district will have until March 6 to return them. The ballots will be counted March 7 and the results will be announced on March 15 at a board meeting, Fike said.
Because the district is raising the funds through a special tax rather than a benefit assessment, the measure's success or failure depends on registered voters, rather than on the district's parcel owners and homeowners.
The district would have preferred to conduct an assessment that would have been voted on by the property owners, Fike said, but a current court case prevented them from using that option. The case, currently in district court, stems from a challenge to a benefit assessment conducted in Calaveras County, Fike said.
"We have to follow election law, and a general election has to go to all registered voters," he said.
The district chose to conduct a special election before the June 5 primaries due to time constraints, Fike said.
"We can't wait until June," he said. "Our budget starts in July for the next fiscal year. We need to secure this, one way or another, as soon as possible, so we can create the budget."
The district has contracted with SCI Consulting Group - which handled a recent election for Penn Valley's fire district - to provide legal advice and to manage the election. Fike said the district is paying SCI $44,000 overall, with half of that cost going to run the election itself.
"It's not costing us any more than if the county handled it," Fike said.
The district will have to receive the ballots in its own post office box in Grass Valley, and then transport them to the Nevada County Elections office, rather than have registered voters mail them directly to the county.
One reason the county could not receive the ballots directly was timing, said Nevada County Assistant Clerk-Recorder Gail Smith. Both the March 6 date that was decided on and a potential later date of May 8 would have been too close in time to the June primaries, she said.
"Due to our limited office space, the integrity of both elections could be jeopardized," she said.
Another issue was that of receiving ballots for an election that the office was not conducting, Smith added.
"SCI is being paid to take care of the election and answer questions," she said. "If we receive them (through the mail), then we get the calls - and I can't answer the questions because I'm not conducting the election."
Nevada County Consolidated was going to arrange for the League of Women Voters to transport the ballots in the locked box from the post office to the elections office. But the district's legal counsel advised against that option, Fike said.
"I am charged with the accountability," he explained. "I am the elections official."
Fike said he would transport the sealed container of ballots to the county, where all the signatures would be certified. The League of Women Voters will help with the counting, and an auditor will tabulate the results.
To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4229.