Nevada County’s fire districts face tight timeline for potential consolidation | TheUnion.com

Nevada County’s fire districts face tight timeline for potential consolidation

The majority of western Nevada County’s fire districts have agreed to move forward with the possibility of reorganizing into one Western Nevada County Fire District. But many hurdles remain, including a tight timeline if it’s to reach a public vote by next fall.

Nevada County Consolidated, Penn Valley, Higgins, North San Juan, Ophir Hill, Peardale-Chicago Park, Rough and Ready and Washington fire district boards have been in the discussion stages for months. A working subcommittee has been meeting since May to look at issues that include alignment of the fire districts, revenue models and taxing options.

The consolidation itself would go to a vote of each district’s board of directors. But the biggest issue — a mechanism to replace each district’s funding sources — would have to go to a public vote, ideally on the November 2020 ballot.

And that’s a quick turnaround to meet all the legal requirements and put together the outreach necessary for passage. A notice of election would need to be filed with the Nevada County elections office by July 1, 2020, to be placed on the Nov. 3, 2020, ballot.

According to CEO Alison Lehman, a working group is planning to conduct a community poll, to assess the interest in moving forward with a tax measure to support enhanced fire services.

“With that information, it will go back to the fire districts to discuss the next steps,” she said.

The districts likely will have a proposal ready for the Local Agency Formation Commission to review by September or October, LAFCo Executive Director SR Jones said.

The proposed new district would staff the 13 fire stations within the eight districts — which currently have volunteer or one to two paid staff — with three or four paid firefighters per day. The hope is to get to 41 personnel on duty per day, up from 17, so that two incidents could be handled at the same time with resources in reserve. A report issued by the subcommittee noted the eight fire agencies have a combined total budget of approximately $13.5 million, funded by mechanisms that include property taxes, special assessments and service charge. The proposed Western Nevada County Fire District would need an estimated budget of $23 million, the report stated.

Jones said each district’s board was given a month to talk the proposal over and decide if they wanted to continue the discussion, with a July 31 deadline. Now that they have all opted to remain on board, Jones said, the working group needs to develop a realistic financial model.

“The next big step is agreeing on exactly what the plan is going to look like,” she said.

LAFCo’s role

When districts within the county consolidate, LAFCo’s role is to review the plan and determine if there are any conditions or terms that need to be met, Jones said.

In the case of the proposed Western Nevada County Fire District, a funding device likely could be one of those conditions, Jones said, adding that a special tax would have to be approved by the voters. Another potential condition would be the establishment of “zones of benefit,” or areas with different levels of staffing.

“We would review (the plan) for financial stability,” Jones said. “Does it make sense from a government perspective?”

There are two separate groups meeting, Lehman said. One is exploring the possible ballot initiative and the other consists of the fire chiefs and representatives from the county.

The county’s interest is two-fold, Lehman said.

“We want to support our local fire districts, and we want better coordination of vegetation management,” she said.

Nevada County has been aggressive in seeking state funding, in coordination with Cal Fire and the Fire Safe Council, to fund large vegetation management programs, Lehman said.

“This year, we have a contract with Consolidated to oversee the contract with our fire inspectors,” she said. “We’re looking at how the county and the fire districts can work closely together, moving forward. … There’s a lot more work that needs to be done. We need to look long term to best serve the community. We feel that partnering with our fire districts will be the best approach and it’s important they have the resources to do that.”

To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, email lizk@theunion.com or call 530-477-4236.


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