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George Boardman: Nevada County officials flat line on fire tax vote

By George Boardman | Columnist

 

We elect officials and hire administrators to keep the pulse of the community, to respond to the needs and concerns of taxpayers. After the recent performance at the Rood Center in offering up a fire prevention tax, you have to conclude they’re flat lining.

Fire and what it can do to our community is a top-line concern among residents, and an existential threat to our existence. As the Paradise fire showed two years ago, this community can be wiped out in hours.

The need to devote more resources to the problem is also clear. Raising millions in new tax revenue is one obvious solution to the problem, but it requires careful analysis of the issue and preparation of a proposal that will win over taxpayers.



Rest assured from county CEO Alison Lehman that thorough engagement occurred: “County staff has been working closely with stakeholders, including city and town managers and fire officials, to identify and prioritize critical safety needs and outline plans on how the tax revenue would be spent.”

What about merchants and other stakeholders who have to absorb the impact of a half-cent levy? Where do they fit in? A representative of the Nevada County Contractors’ Association and at least one member of the Grass Valley Downtown Association complained that neither group was consulted as the proposal was being developed.



Maybe that’s how they missed the desire for a sunset provision for the tax expressed by several speakers at the supervisors’ hearing. Assistant CEO Caleb Dardick, who was involved in developing the tax proposal, said that was the No. 1 question county staff received. Why wasn’t it addressed in the proposal? Now there’s a 10-year sunset provision.

Then there’s the issue of Truckee’s Measure T, which taxes property owners for wildfire mitigation and prevention, and is said to duplicate much of what the “Wildfire Prevention, Emergency Services and Disaster Readiness” tax — a title only a bureaucrat could love — proposes.

Still, no adjustments were made in the proposal until the supervisors voted on the measure, which includes an agreement between the county and Truckee. Why wasn’t this taken care of during the development phase?

The ballot measure itself is full of the fuzzy language politicians like to use as an escape hatch in case things change. The issue was addressed succinctly by Barbara Bashall, government affairs manager of the contractors’ association.

“Because it is a general tax, monies can be directed anywhere at the whim of whoever is in charge at any given moment,” she wrote. “We need a program that is specific; one that will be executed with transparency and accountability.”

She then took aim at foggy terms for the tax revenue like “other general use” and “could” be used to fund wildfire protection and emergency services.

“We are all familiar with what can happen when the fuzzy phrase ‘other general government use’ is bandied about,” she wrote. “There is no guarantee the county will apply its proposed sales tax to fund emergency, disaster and wildfire programs.

“The county, Board of Supervisors, executive staff, and department leaders change over time, as do priorities. And with each change, the likelihood increases that these general tax monies will be redirected.”

Supervisor Dan Miller was the only supervisor who voted against putting the tax increase on the ballot, primarily because the county is proposing a tax increase at a time of high inflation.

Miller said he had 75 signatures from Grass Valley business owners who want supervisors to table the measure. “Frankly, they’re scared,” he said. “Timing is terrible.”

Miller cited inflation, high interest rates and rising prices as concerns. “Now we’re going to throw another half-cent on top. I wouldn’t mind putting something on the ballot that made sense and this doesn’t make sense right now.”

Miller said the county should have done an economic study before considering the sales tax, and noted that officials from Grass Valley and Truckee opposed the measure. “I think this should have been brought up six months ago,” he said.

Miller didn’t say if he raised his objections when the proposal surfaced.

Another issue that nobody raised is that if the tax is passed, a significant amount of money will flow through the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County. There has been recent criticism of the council’s handing of money, and a recent Nevada County Grand Jury report concluded the problems aren’t solved.

“…issues identified by Nevada County, auditors and the public are far from resolved, and the continued turnover of financial employees may put the organization at serious financial risk,” the jury concluded. Maybe the recent hiring of a new controller will solve the problem.

In a statement issued after the meeting, Supervisor Hardy Bullock summed up the day’s events: “The proposed measure could have been prepared better that incorporated community input earlier on and we, the county team as a whole, are responsible for that.

“Ultimately, the solution was not perfect for everyone.”

Now voters are faced with a tax increase that contains a lot of things not to like. As much as we need to devote more resources to fire prevention, getting people to vote “yes” while holding their nose could be a tough sell in November.

George Boardman lives in Nevada City. His column is published biweekly on Tuesdays by The Union. Write him at boredgeorgeman@gmail.com

Observations from the center stripe: Shopping edition

A CAREFUL shopper informs me that BriarPatch stocks an item that is cheaper than anyplace else in town. Really…THE NEVADA City Council doesn’t think the state is serious about enforcing the provisions of SB 9. We’ll see what happens if the Historic Neighborhood Initiative passes in November…NO SURPRISE here: Domino’s pizza is exiting the pizza business in Italy…DONALD TRUMP has said you don’t invoke the Fifth Amendment if you have nothing to hide. He invoked it more than 400 times last week…

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