Bruce Jones: Higgins Fire tax election ballot marred by erroneous information
To our Higgins Fire District residents:
This week registered voters who reside in the Higgins Fire District received ballots in the mail to vote on Measure V. With the ballot is a Voters Information Pamphlet containing the Impartial Analysis of Measure V, the Argument in favor of Measure V and an Argument against Measure V. The pamphlet’s intent is to help voters make an informed decision.
Unfortunately, the argument against Measure V authored by Mr. Wade Freedle makes several erroneous statements presented as facts. I feel it is important for the residents of the district to understand the reality of the current difficult situation Higgins District faces and to respond to the misinformation currently being presented.
Why Measure V? Why does the district need this funding? It’s simple. The need was caused by the housing downturn of the last several years. Higgins Fire District receives the majority of its funding for its general fund from property taxes, the same funding received by law enforcement, schools, and other county infrastructure services.
In fiscal year 2007-08, Higgins District received $2,016,104 in funding from property taxes to fund operations. In 2008, the bottom started to drop out of the housing market and by the end of fiscal year 2008-09 the funding to the District dropped to $1,409,462. Comparing 2007 to the 2012 general fund, Higgins lost $822,426 in yearly tax revenue forcing the District to: eliminate Higgins staffing during the summer at Station 21, require employees to pay a larger portion of their benefits, change staffing patterns which resulted in pay cuts, freeze replacement of non-critical equipment, and in July 2012, close one station.
Although the housing market is recovering and revenue from property taxes is rising, the increase has been 3-5 percent per year meaning it would take a decade or more to recover to where it was before the crash. The Special Fire Tax of $141 paid yearly by residents per dwelling unit will appear on your bill (like the current $25 special tax, which would be replaced) as a separate item and will generate the revenue needed to operate a fire station and keep it open. It takes approximate $600,000 per year to run one fire station: staff salaries/benefits, operating costs and supplies. This Special Fire Tax is sustainable funding and will not depend on the volatile housing market. The Special Tax is based on dwelling units and will not increase the parcel tax you currently pay. And since it is a tax, you can deduct it from your income tax. This is a flat rate tax which will not increase in the future without voter approval.
In answer to the statements made in the Argument against Measure V, the rebuttal to argument in favor of Measure V and a recent post card mailed to residents the following information corrects these misstatements:
“the majority of calls (75%) are medical….Higgins staff does not provide any medical function …..fire department response is only to provide support services if they are required.”
In fact 50 percent of calls are for medical reasons and, since SNMH ambulances only stage around the Higgins for only four hours per day (they are located at Cherry Creek Road), firefighters are often the first in, it’s why we are called “first responders”. It is our EMT firefighters who provide the first medical aid, our firefighters are the one who start CPR, and our firefighters are the ones continuing CPR in the ambulance. In traffic accidents, accidents with machinery, etc. the “victim” is the sole responsibility of the firefighters until they can get that person out of the vehicle or situation and then they become a “patient” for the medical resources. Firefighters and ambulance staff work together as a team at the calls. Firefighters are not support staff!
“Cal Fire has offices and staff at the Higgins station … and in fact is the primary responder. Cal Fire engines and personnel respond to most calls, while the Higgins staff only provides auxiliary personnel…”
In fact, Cal Fire and Higgins do cohabitate Station 21 during the summer. Cal Fire only staffs stations during the fire season, approximately May through October. Currently, as I write this on July 31, there are no Cal Fire engines at Station 21. All resources are out fighting the numerous fires around northern California. Higgins staff and volunteers are doing their job making sure someone responds to your emergency. Counting on Cal Fire to answer all the calls is a mistake. They will be out fighting wildfire, which is their mission. As for the rest of the year, one Cal Fire Captain or Engineer is at Station 21 during the winter months because of a contract Higgins has with Cal Fire. All equipment and firefighters are from Higgins and are the responders during that time. I take great exception calling our dedicated and professional firefighters “auxiliary” or “support” staff. They have trained for thousands of hours, are Emergency Medical Technicians and work very hard to maintain a high level of service. Calling them “auxiliary” is a slap in the face to these professionals! As for mutual aid, surrounding fire departments respond if they have the resources to do so and with the reduction of funding to most other departments, those resources are not always there anymore.
“Can the community be required to support a function that is obviously over staffed in terms of service?…with operating costs driven by total compensation of between $99,000 and $133,000?”
Mr. Freedle uses the example of the top position which actually tops out at $82,765 in salary. Additional salary is earned working on Strike Teams (like the Lowell Fire currently) which is reimbursed by the state or federal government. Look around at the other departments. At Higgins a Firefighter I starts at $11.51 an hour, lower than some Starbucks. A firefighter, plus their family, only receives $850 a month for health insurance. One battalion chief, two captains, one business manager and 10 engineers/firefighters does not make this an over-staffed organization.
Mr. Freedle states that “with a policy that enables retirement after age 52 with full benefits, which can be up to 80% of final pay”. Not everyone is in the 2 percent at 50 risk pool; in fact those that have joined PERS since the reform must retire much later. And to receive 80 percent of their final pay, an employee would need to be employed and in PERS for approximately 30 years. Higgins employees do not receive “full benefits” upon retiring; in fact they receive no post-employment benefits. Well, those employees who have worked for Higgins for 15 years before retirement will receive a $100 per month stipend toward their medical for five years. That is $6,000 over five years. This in no way is “full benefits”. Once an employee retires from Higgins, with the exception of the above mentioned health stipend, the District has no further costs. Higgins will not “end up paying more for John Doe fireman during his retirement then when he was a productive member of the staff.” This is a complete falsehood. Higgins is not a big city fire department, employees do not make big salaries, and their benefits are reasonable.
A post card was also sent out this week from Citizens for Fair Fire Taxes which has more erroneous statements:
“Higgins Fire is asking again for a parcel tax increase … and is spending $46,000 of our money to pay for an election campaign … parcel taxes are not the primary source of operational funding … many other fire districts do not have a parcel fire tax … Higgins does not provide any emergency medical services since none of its personnel are trained as emergency medical technicians.”
• First, we need to correct the language used – it is not a parcel tax! It is a flat rate Special Fire Tax which is separate from your property taxes. Your property taxes will not increase because of this tax.
—Higgins is spending funds received in 2014 from Strike Teams they worked on to pay for this election. This is not your tax money. This is money the state and federal governments have paid Higgins for using their staff and equipment to fight fires (like our strike team currently at the Lowell Fire). This is one-time funding that is not budgeted.
— Actually property parcel taxes are the primary source of operational funding for Higgins. Measure V is a separate Special Fire Tax.
— The truth is that all surrounding Fire Districts do have the same special fire taxes. Penn Valley residents pay $173.34; Ophir Hill pays $129.70 and Nevada County Consolidated residents pay $158.00 per year.
— And finally, all of Higgins permanent firefighters are Emergency Medical Technicians and three quarters of our Paid Call Firefighters are EMTs.
Unfortunately Mr. Freedle has gotten his “facts” wrong and it has been published in a pamphlet that has gone to all registered voters in Higgins District. This spreads misinformation throughout our community and I felt it necessary to set the facts straight.
Bruce Jones is chairman of the Higgins Fire Protection District Board of Directors.
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