Ophir Hill candidates debate ballot wording | TheUnion.com

Ophir Hill candidates debate ballot wording

Nevada County’s smallest fire district might not collect any money even if voters approve a special-tax measure Tuesday, a candidate for the Ophir Hill Fire Protection District board of directors claims.

But not everyone thinks he’s right. Candidate Jeff Wagner, Ophir’s former fire chief, claims the wording of Measure J, a special-tax proposal to hire firefighters for the Cedar Ridge station, includes wording that renders the measure useless.

Even if the needed two-thirds of voters pass the measure, Wagner said, “They’re never going to collect a dime.”

He chalks up the possible snafu to “incompetence” by the current board.

Not so fast, said board member Lois Engel.

“No. 1, he’s so far off he isn’t even funny,” she said. “He’s just reading it wrong. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

Further, she said, an earlier Ophir Hill measure with the very same wording being questioned passed in 1997, when Wagner was chief. That money, $125,000 generated over four years, went toward buying a water tender.

Unaware the two measures were similarly phrased when he first raised the issue, Wagner looked into Engel’s claim and learned she’s right.

“I’m not sure how that could’ve happened, but I guess all of us taxpayers need to get together and ask for a refund from the ’97 assessment,” Wagner said.

Measure J on Tuesday’s ballot asks voters for $65 annually for residential and commercial lots, and $35 for unimproved lots.

The backdrop for this back-and-forth is Ophir Hill’s board election. Wagner and Engel are among three candidates seeking two board seats, and according to observers, the strife between them goes back to Wagner’s days as chief.

Engel was partly responsible for Wagner’s resignation as chief in 1999, one board member has said.

The wording at issue in this year’s measure comes under Section 5, which defines the areas to be taxed. It says:

“A special tax to raise revenue to fund services is hereby levied upon real property within the District, except those areas designated as National Forest Lands or State Responsibility Areas. …”

The debate is over what State Responsibility Area means. Engel doesn’t see a problem with the wording. She perceives SRA to mean Empire Mine State Historic Park and Union Hill School.

However, the entire nine-square-mile Ophir Hill district – including private parcels – is SRA, according to Tony Clarabut, unit chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“Bottom line, Ophir Hill is SRA,” said Clarabut, a former chief of the district.

SRAs comprise most of the county. Among the exceptions are the incorporated areas of Grass Valley and Nevada City, which are Local Responsibility Areas, or LRAs.

In more practical terms, if wildlands catch fire within Ophir Hill’s district, CDF is the lead agency. If a house burns in the district, Ophir Hill is the lead agency, and CDF will respond to ensure flames don’t spread to wildlands, Clarabut said.

Sources contacted for this story steered clear of saying whether the exemption makes the measure meaningless.

The district hired Grass Valley lawyer Joseph Bell to review the verbiage, Engel said, and the County Counsel’s Office also looked at it.

“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” Bell said.

Bell is an “on call” lawyer for the district, and he reviewed a draft of the measure, gave comments, and made changes, he said.

The County Counsel’s Office drafts measures for fire districts, but it wasn’t asked to in Ophir Hill’s case, Chief County Counsel Charles McKee said.

McKee declined to say if Wagner had a legitimate point. His office did provide the “impartial analysis” in the sample ballot sent to voters, but that was it.

“It’s not our responsibility to see whether somebody’s language has the effect they intended it to have, or if it has another, unintended effect,” he said.

County Clerk-Recorder Lorraine Jewett-Burdick wasn’t aware of any concerns regarding the wording until Wagner contacted her this week.

“I just put on the ballot what the board passes,” she said.

Engel maintains the Ophir Hill board passed a proper measure. “If somebody wants to take it to court,” she said, “let them take it to court.”

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