Fire district seeks rescue tax hike
Senior Staff Writer
The Penn Valley Fire Protection District could increase taxes 46 percent on average residents with a May ballot election that board members could approve later this month.
The proposed increase – about $51 per year for a typical home in the district – is needed to ensure future medical services, District Fire Chief Gene Vander Plaats said Thursday. The district also has to shore up a projected deficit of $146,000 by the end of the 2009-10 fiscal year on June 30.
“If we don’t get it, we’ll have to start laying off workers,” Vander Plaats said of the tax increase Thursday. In addition, the district would have to close one of its two main stations on Spenceville and Pleasant Valley roads from one to three days a week, he added.
District officials worry staffing cuts could make them fall below service and response time levels mandated by the state, endangering ambulance runs and mutual aid agreements with neighboring fire districts, Vander Plaats said.
The current $1.6 million budget includes $1.3 million in labor costs, with the $146,000 deficit made up of generally rising costs and a $93,000 dip in state reimbursement revenue; district firefighters and equipment were not called out to major blazes this year.
District officials have not sought wage and benefits cuts from employees, Vander Plaats said.
The district payroll includes nine full-time firefighter-emergency responders, two part-time firefighter-medics, one office manager, a battalion chief and Vander Plaats.
Employees have not recently bargained for pay hikes, but some employees have received merit increases of 5 percent during the current two-year contract, Vander Plaats said.
The district also has chosen to pay extra for a mail ballot election for the tax increase to 7,600 registered voters in the district, Vander Plaats said.
The district could have paid $12,000 to the county to be included in the November general election, but were afraid voters would not pass the increase on a large ballot, Vander Plaats said. The district has suffered three past failures on major ballots, he added.
County elections officials also told district leaders there wasn’t enough time to set up a special election, and the district would have to pay for one anyway, Vander Plaats said. At that point, board members chose to pay an outside firm to run the election for $24,000, he added.
The “rescue tax” that pays for emergency medical services, which make up 65 percent of the district’s calls, Vander Plaats said.
Currently, the tax is $47 for the average home per year, with a $63 special fire tax bringing the annual average bill to $110. That would jump to $161 with the rescue tax increase, which must get a two-thirds vote to pass.
Mail ballots would go out about one month before the election and would have to be postmarked by May 21 to be counted, Vander Plaats said.
“We might get half back, but we need two-thirds on the returned ballots, ” Vander Plaats said.
The ballots will go to a special post office box and will be saved there until May 21, Vander Plaats said. The mail ballots will then be counted and signatures of registered voters verified by the League of Women Voters, he added.
Combining the department with the Nevada County Consolidated Fire Protection District has been explored, but the district’s financial situation makes it unattractive, Vander Plaats said.
“If they came into the Consolidated district, they would have to be a sound financial entity,” Consolidated Chief Tim Fike said.
Consolidated is currently in talks with Grass Valley and Nevada City fire departments about merging service.
The Penn Valley fire board will meet at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 16, to vote on the mail ballot plan at the fire hall at 10513 Spenceville Road.
To contact Senior Staff Writer Dave Moller, e-mail email@example.com or call (530) 477-4237.
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