Penn Valley tries again for fire fee |

Penn Valley tries again for fire fee

Three times the Penn Valley Fire Protection District has tried to pass a tax to get the department back in the black, and three times the tax failed by small margins.

Now, rather than putting a tax on the ballot again, the department is trying something different and is following in the footsteps of another local department.

Like Nevada County Consolidated Fire District before it, the Penn Valley department is trying for a “special assessment.” It would still be a fee for those in the fire district, but it would require a simple majority of mail-in votes to pass.

Single-family home owners would see their annual fire-protection fee increase from about $11 to $57. With the current Penn Valley ambulance fee of $47, single-family home owners would pay a total of about $104 for emergency services.

The fire fee has not changed since 1981, Penn Valley officials said.

“Three years ago, we were paying all of our bills plus putting money aside for improvements. Two years ago, we were just paying our bills,” Penn Valley Fire Chief Gene Vander Plaats said. “Now, we can’t pay our current bills with our current money.”

Along with its ailing operating budget, the department also needs the money to staff its fire station on Spenceville Road and to add up to four new paid firefighters.

Currently, only the Lake Wildwood station is staffed on a full-time basis, and volunteers are called when there is more than one emergency. The department has increasingly dealt with more than one call at a time, firefighter and paramedic Don Wagner said. That has made it difficult to provide first-rate service to the community.

“We would have more people on duty each day (if the new assessment passes),” he said.

Last November, the department tried for the third time to pass the fire tax. “Measure R” needed a two-thirds majority (66.66 percent) vote to pass. The department got about 65 percent.

With a fire assessment, however, only a simple majority of more than 50 percent is needed to pass. This approach was used by the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District and was successful last fall.

Other differences are:

• In an assessment, only property owners – not all residents – vote.

• If a property owner has more than one property, he or she will be able to vote once for each property.

• Votes are weighted by the use of property – commercial and apartment building owners’ votes have a greater sway than those by owners of unimproved property because the fees will be higher for developed land.

• In an assessment, the ballots are not secret, and signatures are required on the outside of the envelopes. According to California Proposition 218, passed in 1996, ballots must include the name of the property owner so the vote can be audited, matching a vote with a property to ensure a property is not counted twice.

This was the point of much disagreement in the case of Consolidated’s assessment, where some property owners complained that the district would know who voted against the assessment.

In Consolidated’s assessment, an independent auditor was brought in to tally votes. Penn Valley plans to do the same.

The Penn Valley ballots will be sent to the League of Women Voters, said Rick Nolle, chairman of Neighbors Concerned for Fire Safety, a Penn Valley group working to increase the fire-protection fee.

“Fire officials will not handle ballots,” Nolle said. “We have the support, just not enough for the ballot measure. When it worked for Consolidated, we knew what had to be done.”

There are several reasons that Penn Valley Fire District did not attempt an assessment earlier, Vander Plaats said. One of the bigger reasons is the cost associated with it. While a tax is relatively cheap to put on the ballot, about $30,000 is required to hire an engineering company to determine how much property owners should have to pay for fire protection.

The department’s supervisory board approved the proposed fees last week, and Nolle said ballots will be mailed out around the middle of May. They will be due 45 days later, he said.

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