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Board Favors Putting Fire Tax Before North Auburn-Ophir Voters

December 15, 2011

 The Placer County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to proceed with plans for placing a special tax measure before North Auburn-Ophir voters so the community can decide the level of fire service it receives in the future.

“Most of us have seen our property tax bills decline with the value of our homes. For fire service, those reduced property tax bills mean less money for service,” explained County Assistant Director of Emergency Services Rui Cunha. “Even while keeping costs stable over the last five years, significantly reduced revenues make it impossible to continue at the current service level. In the North Auburn-Ophir case, we are asking the board to give the community an opportunity to decide if it wants to keep service at the existing level.”

The county has established eight community-funded Community Service Area Zones of Benefit in areas served by the Placer County Fire Department, ensuring that monies collected from residents stay within the defined zones and only pay for fire service. Similar to other zones, North Auburn-Ophir residents establish their fire service level based on what they are willing to pay in both property taxes and direct charges. The law does not allow property owners to decide they want more of their property taxes to go to fire service, so it becomes necessary to ask voters to increase their current direct charges.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board reviewed two just-completed studies that analyze fire service funding challenges facing the two county service areas hit hardest by property tax reductions: North Auburn-Ophir and Dry Creek.

Placer County Fire currently has operating and capital-replacement reserves of about $1.16 million in the North Auburn-Ophir area, but annual operating deficits could exhaust the reserves by the latter half of 2013 if nothing is done.

The proposed tax measure would go on the June 5, 2012 primary ballot. It would raise about $570,000 in additional revenue per year for fire services in the North Auburn-Ophir area.

County staff will return to the board on Jan. 24 with details on how much each property owner will need to pay if the community wants to keep their fire service at its current level. To pass, at least two-thirds of North Auburn-Ophir’s voters will need to support the measure.

If at least one third of the community is not in favor of maintaining fire service at its current level in the North Auburn-Ophir area, staff will ask the Board of Supervisors to implement necessary service reductions.

The North Auburn-Ophir area is served by three fire stations: a North Auburn station at 11645 Atwood Road, an Ophir station at 9305 Wise Road and the Lone Star station at 6150 Grass Valley Highway. The Atwood station is staffed full time by four firefighters, Ophir has full-time staffing of two firefighters and Lone Star is unstaffed.

Cunha reported that the Atwood station is the busiest fire station in the unincorporated area of Placer County, noting that it responds to about 2,000 calls per year.

The service-reduction options analyzed in the North Auburn-Ophir report include reducing full-time staffing to five or four firefighters.

The report notes that either service-reduction option would lead to increased response times, reductions in available resources and impacts on neighboring fire agencies that provide mutual aid to North Auburn-Ophir. It reported that the six firefighters and their three frontline engines currently can meet 84 percent of the area’s service calls on their own. Mutual aid assistance from outside agencies is needed to help with 16 percent of the calls either because they require more than six firefighters or calls come in when the area’s firefighters and engines already are committed to other incidents.

“I would encourage us to go forward with a ballot measure,” said 3rd District Supervisor Jim Holmes during Tuesday’s discussion.

Fifth District Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery agreed, saying the fire funding issues facing North Auburn-Ophir are dire. “There are not a lot of good options here,” she said.

Both supervisors represent part of the North Auburn-Ophir fire service area.

Fire Chief Brad Harris of Placer County Fire gave the board an example Tuesday of the staffing issues facing local fire agencies, noting that resources throughout western Placer County were stretched thin Monday night when firefighters had to contend with two major structure fires in the Greater Auburn area at the same time. He noted that every fire district and city fire department in western Placer County provided resources to either help fight the fires or provide backup support.

“These are instances that occur regularly,” he told the board.

Placer County Fire is staffed by CAL FIRE under a contract with Placer County. Harris is chief of CAL FIRE’s Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit, and is the Placer County Fire Warden and chief of the Placer County Fire system.

For Dry Creek, staff recommends using contingency reserves to eliminate projected operating deficits through the 2013-14 fiscal year and reassessing the area’s funding outlook when the county prepares its 2014-15 budget.

Dry Creek’s deficits are projected to be smaller than those facing North Auburn-Ophir, and the studies project that the Dry Creek deficits will end in 10 years partly because of increased property tax revenue from new development. Dry Creek’s revenue shortfall is projected to be $154,600 this fiscal year.

Cunha noted that costs have remained flat in the Dry Creek area, but property tax revenue is down by 29 percent. Similar to North Auburn-Ophir, “It is a revenue problem,” he told the board. “It is not a cost problem.”