Fate of fire fee hike up to voters | TheUnion.com

Fate of fire fee hike up to voters

In just a few days, residents protected by the county’s largest local fire agency will begin receiving ballots to vote on the financial future of their fire department.

But several property owners who live in Nevada County Consolidated Fire District’s region have voiced opposition to the measure, saying that the department can raise the money through other avenues.

“I’m hoping our community recognizes the need for higher fire protection,” Consolidated Fire Chief Tim Fike said. “This is so critical; it is really important people understand the ramifications.”

In 1996, homeowners in Consolidated’s protection area voted to pay $30 a year for 10 years. But the fee expires in two years, and fire department officials say that if taxpayers want an increased level of service – or at least the same level – they have to approve an increased tax this September.

If the assessment is not approved, the district will close fire stations in Alta Sierra and on Ridge Road and lay off nine firefighters, Fike said.

The current tax generates $345,000 of the department’s $3 million annual budget.

To pass the $1.3 million assessment – which would increase the fees of homeowners and commercial property owners by various amounts – more than half of the region’s taxpayers have to support the measure.

While everyone who owns property in the district would have to pay more if the measure is approved – for example; the fee for most single-family homes would increase from $59 to $89 – commercial owners whose properties are not protected by fire sprinklers would be hit hardest.

“I have respect for the (fire department), but I don’t like the way they are going about raising this money,” said Jeff Heilmann, who owns a warehouse on Loma Rica Road.

Heilmann’s warehouse is 20,000 square feet. Thirteen thousand square feet have sprinklers, and 7,000 square feet do not. He said he currently pays $480 annually under the 1996 assessment.

Under the new tax, the cost for commercial property without sprinklers would be double that of property with sprinklers. Heilmann would have to pay $670 annually under the new proposal, Fike said.

“It’s a fairly small increase considering what we are trying to do with this money,” Fike said.

If the commercial property has sprinklers, the cost difference is much less, he said.

Furniture by Thurston, located in the same neighborhood as Heilmann’s warehouse, currently pays $1,555 annually for property totaling 61,000 square feet. Under the new assessment, the business would have to pay only $13 more.

“(Commercial property owners) have the most to lose and the most to gain,” Fike said, referring to a recent blaze at Furniture by Thurston that was extinguished before the building and many products could be engulfed.

That is not enough to convince Heilmann to vote for the assessment. He suggested that the district make more money by selling off some of its unused fire stations.

He also recommended a quarter- or half-cent sales tax throughout the county that would be shared by all of the area’s fire departments according to their service areas.

“Let everybody share the burden,” Heilmann said.

A similar special tax was defeated in 2002. Fike said property owners did not know the implications of the measure then, but that this time around the department is making sure voters are educated on the financial situation of the department.

Fike said off-duty firefighters will attend homeowners’ meetings and go door to door to discuss the assessment and answer questions. The department has also mailed informational brochures to the 18,000 property owners included in the district.

The district would use the $1.3 million to staff fire stations in Alta Sierra and Banner Mountain and replace engines and other safety equipment.

The assessment would replace existing taxes in Watt Park and the 49er region, which have joined the consolidated district since 1996.

Ballots, which will include each individual owner’s proposed tax, will be mailed out Sept. 3. They are due by Oct. 21.

Even if the measure were to fail this year but succeed next year, there would still be a one-year lapse in funding, Fike said. He said if it is not passed now, there will not be a measure in 2005.

“If this fails,” he said, “we won’t even have the money to campaign for anything.”

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