The North San Juan Fire District took the first step toward pursuing a tax measure by hiring a consulting firm to gauge constituents’ willingness to approve an additional assessment to annual property taxes that would bolster the finances of the volunteer department.
“I’ve thought about this for an interminable amount of time, and I have decided I am in favor of this,” said Ed Beckenbach, chairman of North San Juan Fire’s board of directors. “But to ensure we give the community what we want, we need an outside party. I think they could do it better and with less bias.”
The board unanimously approved a resolution to hire SCI Consulting, the firm that successfully guided Nevada County Consolidated Fire District and Penn Valley Fire Protection District through similar tax measures in 2011 and 2010 respectively.
Initially, the district will hire the company to perform initial analysis and planning while conducting a public opinion research and survey.
“The first survey will be extremely important,” said Durinda Kelley. “It will get the pulse of the community right off the bat.”
If the community seems receptive to a tax measure, the board may opt to pay the firm to help conduct an election, which could appear on the 2014 primary ballot in June, the November general election or an isolated vote-by-mail election.
North San Juan Fire, like many fire districts in Nevada County, has been beset by dwindling revenue streams as a result of declining property values prompted by the reverberations of the 2007 housing bust.
North San Juan, which features a $250,000 annual budget, has suffered a decline in revenue for the last seven years, said Treasurer Bruce Boyd, adding the tax assessment is currently about $27 and has not been raised in 27 years.
“If we wait another three years, we might not have enough money to (hire a consultant),” Boyd said. “We might have to do this on our own, and the odds of it being successful go down.”
Marilyn Mociun, who also sits on the district’s Fire Protection Revenue Committee, said the current tax assessment generates about $42,000, accounting for one sixth of the annual budget.
North San Juan Fire is a volunteer department with three paid employees — two-part time administrative employees and a fire chief that receives a monthly stipend of $1,500. The department features a roster of about 20 volunteer firefighters who are paid on a per response basis — a program that is called “Paid Call” in the fire service.
The annual budget for firefighters is about $10,000, which averages to about $500 per year per firefighter, although some firefighters do respond to more calls, said Public Information Officer Christoffer Montelius. The tax measure would help recruiting, training and retaining firefighters.
Furthermore, the district needs equipment upgrades in the form of a fire engine capable of assisting in the battle against wildland fires and advanced EMT training, according to a staff report.
“This community is willing to support us,” said Rainy Blue Cloud, a captain with the department.
Medical calls dominate the fire district’s responses, comprising 70 percent of the approximately 300 calls the dispatch receives annually.
However, Pat Leach recognizes the State Responsibility Area Fee has created a difficulty for cash-strapped local fire districts, conceding North San Fire will have to combat the widespread misconception that local fire districts receive a portion of the proceeds from the deeply unpopular $150 annual fees administered to rural residents by the state.
In fact, local fire districts do not collect a share, as the money goes toward filling a shortfall in California’s general fund.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4239.