Q&A addresses the fire assessment
A few key questions about Nevada County Consolidated Fire District’s mail-in ballot for its proposed fire fee:
Q: Who gets to vote on this fee?
A: Property owners in the fire district. A ballot was sent to each property owner. 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.
If a property owner has more than one property, he or she will be able to vote once for each property.
If several people co-own a property, they can request additional ballots, but the “weight” of the property’s votes will be divided among the owners.
Q: How much more will I pay a year?
A: The assessment would replace all existing fire levies (assessments and taxes). It would eliminate the discrepancy in bills within the area served by Consolidated.
Annual charges would be:
• Single family home: $89
• Condominium: $66.75
• Mobile home in a park: $35.66
• Vacant property: $26.70
• Commercial property rates vary on the size of the square footage.
It would be a permanent assessment as long as the fire district is in operation.
Q: Why does it include the ability for the district to increase the assessment up to 3 percent annually?
A: Re-voting on the assessment in five or 10 years would cost at least $30,000, Fike said.
The allowance is included for cost-of-living increases such as workers’ compensation, fuel and utilities. Fike said he doesn’t expect to ask the board for such an increase every year.
Any proposed increase must go before the district’s Board of Directors in a public meeting. Five of the seven board members would need to vote for an increase, Fike said.
Q: Why does the fire district need this to pass?
A: Measure I, which passed in 1996, provided 10 years of revenue for Consolidated. When the measure expires in a little more than one a year, the district will be out about $350,000 per year.
In the late 1970s, Consolidated was a volunteer fire district. Now, it is a professional force in a growing area, which needs to pay for salaries, equipment, training, and escalating insurance and workers’ compensation costs.
If the assessment fails, the district expects to close the Alta Sierra and Ridge Road stations and lay off nine firefighters, Chief Tim Fike said. With the $1.3 million from the assessment, the district would staff the Alta Sierra station around the clock and construct and staff a station on Banner Mountain.
Q: How many votes does the initiative need to pass?
A: In order to pass, a majority of property owners (more than 50 percent of weighted votes) who submit ballots must vote “yes.” Ballots must be returned by Oct. 21.
Q: Why isn’t it a secret ballot?
Names must be written on ballots in accordance with state Proposition 218, which was 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.
Ballots are not subject to the state election code.
Q: Couldn’t it have been on the November ballot with the other elections?
A: If it were on the November ballot, it would be a tax. Taxes need a two-thirds majority to pass. Assessments need a majority. The board governing the district selected an assessment, which is generally easier to pass but includes restrictions on the use of funds.
All registered voters in the district, property owners or not, would be able to vote on the tax if it were on the November election. Property owners who live out of the area would not have been able to vote.
Assessments can be used for structure fires, vegetation fires, fire prevention, and inspections, activities that benefit a property owner.
Traffic collision response, vehicle fires, hazardous material calls and medical aid services, which benefit the general public, cannot be financed through an assessment.
Therefore, property owners who vote on an assessment will receive the primary benefit from it.
Consolidated will continue to respond to medical emergencies and traffic calls using property tax revenue.
Q: Who will be counting the ballots?
A: Sealed ballots are sent to an independent auditor, McSweeney and Associates. On Oct. 22, the auditors will deliver the ballots to Station 84 at the intersection of Highway 49 and Coyote Street in Nevada City. Ballots will be counted at 9 a.m. Oct. 22 by independent consultants from the firm Berryman & Henigar. Members of the public are invited to watch.
Q: When are they due?
A: Ballots must be received no later than Oct. 21. If a ballot is not received by that evening, it will not be counted. Ballots can be hand-delivered before 5 p.m. Oct. 21 to the Clerk of the Board located in the District’s Administrative Office at 11329 McCourtney Road, Grass Valley. From 5 to 7 p.m. Oct. 21, last-minute ballots can be delivered to the District’s Fire Station 84 at 10135 Coyote Street, Nevada City.
Q: When would it take effect if it passes?
A: Property owners would first pay for the new assessment in December 2005.
Sources: Property owner ballot, Consolidated Chief Tim Fike, Berryman & Henigar, and The Union staff research.
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