North San Juan Fire Protection District manager Tracy Corris wants to make one thing crystal-clear.
The district is not going to sell its proposed tax increase, Measure Q, with threats.
“This is about growth,” he said. “We’re not saying we’re going to close fire stations — this is about our ability to do more.”
The nearly all-volunteer department needs more funding for three key reasons, Measure Q proponents say: faster response time for emergency medical services, better training and retention of volunteers, and a higher level of preparedness for wildland fires.
The district covers the largest territory in the county, at 70-plus square miles, including the area between the South and Middle Yuba rivers, and from Bridgeport in the west to Malakoff Diggins State Park in the east. The district provides emergency services for 250 to 300 incidents per year, according to its website.
The district’s budget was $250,000 in 2013-14; to put that into perspective, Nevada County Consolidated Fire District’s budget for 2010-11 was $5.3 million. North San Juan Fire has only three paid employees — two-part time administrative employees and Fire Chief Jason Flores, who receives a monthly stipend of $1,500. The district is funded by general tax revenue, Proposition 172 public safety funds, special assessment funds and mitigation funds. The Fire Auxiliary raises funds through community events, and donations also assist with special funding needs.
Board member Marilyn Mociun said the problem — as with many other fire districts funded with property taxes — is dwindling revenue as a result of declining property values.
Corris provided an example of what better economic times meant for the tiny district. In the late 1990s, he said, the district would receive $35,000 to $50,000 a year in mitigation funds.
“We were cruising,” he said. “But now ... we’re lucky if we get $7,000-$8,000 a year.”
“We can manage to pay our bills,” Corris said. “We limp along.”
Without more revenue, the district can’t grow, which it desperately needs to do as the community ages and more medical calls become the norm, he said. Medical calls dominate the fire district’s responses, comprising 70 percent of the approximately 300 calls the dispatch receives annually.
There has been no increase in the district’s tax since it was passed in 1986, because no cost of living increase was built in. That original tax was controversial, which is why it became a fairly low, static figure of $27, said Johnson.
“We’ve been living off that,” he said. “This proposal just matches inflation.”
Measure Q proposes $43.66 for vacant parcels, $123 for commercial parcels, and $61.50 for residential units. That’s on top of the current fee that was instituted in 1986, meaning that a parcel with one residence would pay $88.50.
The district has estimated the tax will raise an additional $110,000 a year for the district. A proposed revenue breakdown would put $25,000 into capital improvements, $11,000 into a contingency fund, $20,000 into a capital equipment fund, $14,000 into enhanced emergency response training and equipment, $10,000 into firefighter training and $30,000 into shift stipends and increased paid call.
Inreasing stipend for calls
“It’s important to note we’re not trying to create a paid department,” Corris said, adding the entire $110,000 would equate to just one and a half paid firefighter positions.
“We can make it less painful for our volunteers,” Corris said, explaining that many pay for equipment out of their own pockets.
And that’s on top of the unpaid hours the volunteers work.
Montelius offered up one volunteer’s 2012 hours as proof — 405 hours of training, and 1,728 hours of service during monthly duty shifts, responding to 125 calls and performing maintenance chores.
“We love what we do, we love to support the community,” he said. “But a lot of us are self-employed. An accident or a fire can happen at any time and we’ll need all hands on deck. When the alarm goes off, no one knows how long they’ll be gone … People lose income.”
Where a paid firefighter knows they will be on duty for 12 hours, a volunteer essentially is on duty 24-7, Montelius said.
“They never know what’s going to happen,” he said, adding ruefully, “You have to get out of the district to get a day off.”
Once a volunteer completes all the necessary training, they are eligible for paid calls. The district budgets about $12,000 a year, which works out to approximately $300 a quarter per firefighter. The more incidents they respond to, the less money they make per call. The district would like to increase that amount to $30,000 per year.
More money would mean more trained EMTs, meaning more lives saved, the measure’s advocates said.
According to Corris, it can take from 20 minutes to an hour for an ambulance to arrive — a time lapse that could be covered with more firefighters trained as EMTs.
“Even if the firefighters have the skills, they need special certification to be legally covered to do that work,” Mociun explained.
The district would like to train eight more firefighters in that crucial certification.
“If we can retain more, and recruit more, we can ensure a great response time,” Mociun said.
The district strives for a 10-minute response time, and ranges between six and 15 minutes, she said. One tactic that helps cut response time is having all EMTs carry medical bags in their personal vehicles, so they can respond from home instead of having to go to the fire station first, Corris said. There currently are 12 EMTs on board, and they are spread throughout the district.
Another funding gap the district hopes to address with more revenue is adding wildland fire equipment that could be used on strike teams, which could actually add revenue back to the district when it is used to assist on fires.
During the summer, North San Juan Fire works hand in hand with Cal Fire, Montelius said.
“If we get a big fire, we’re most likely the first engine at the scene,” he said, adding that the district would be better served if that first responder was a bigger engine with more pumping capacity.
Another potential use for those funds, Corris said, would be the establishment of a fire station toward Malakoff Diggins. That area is not part of the district, but is part of its sphere of influence.
“We respond, but they don’t pay fire fees,” Corris said.
The need for more revenue has been evident for a while, but the district didn’t move ahead until after it conducted a survey in November.
“We wouldn’t have moved forward if the community had expressed a negative response,” Mociun said.
The measure’s advocates acknowledge an uphill battle, particularly as the State Responsibility Area fees hit people hard and can cause them to think they’re already paying a local fire protection fee. In fact, local fire districts do not collect a share, as the money goes toward filling a shortfall in California’s general fund.
“Not a penny (of that) comes to us,” Mociun said.
“We know the timing (of a new tax) seems bad,” she added. “But we wanted to be proactive rather than waiting until we had to close a station. There is no really good time to put forth a tax measure.”
Montelius invoked the specter of the 49er fire, which started in the district, in emphasizing the need for the funding.
“It’s in the whole county’s interest (for us) to have a strong fire department,” he said. “We are the first line of defense — we need a fast response and good equipment.”
To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4229.