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Placer County supervisors call for reorganization of local fire service

May 23, 2018

With the system of fire service in many areas of Placer County becoming increasingly financially unmanageable, the Placer County Board of Supervisors today called for an evaluation of the system and a comprehensive effort to develop sustainable service throughout the county in the future.

The board unanimously approved a series of actions specific to the two types of fire agencies in the county: independent fire districts, and areas served by CAL FIRE in their capacity as the Placer County Fire Department. 

For the Placer County Fire-served areas, county staff will pursue a consolidation of its 10 separate zones of benefit, intended to reduce costs and increase flexibility and coordination of resources. 

A zone of benefit is a geographic area formed under county service area law to provide services not already being provided by any other entity.

The board also approved waiving fees for a ballot measure in the independent Foresthill Fire Protection District to increase parcel tax rates, after a previous measure failed to secure a needed supermajority for approval.

Fire service in Placer County is provided by many different agencies. State law does not require counties to provide fire service, and communities have historically organized and funded their own local fire districts, largely through parcel taxes. Currently there are 17 independent fire districts in Placer County. 

In a series of presentations to the board today, county staff and Placer County Fire Chief George Morris outlined the challenges facing fire service providers in the county. 

Available revenue for fire services has been limited since the Proposition 13 ballot measure in 1978 capped property tax rates. Later measures required a supermajority (66.67 percent) voter approval on future local tax measures, making it harder for fire districts to keep up with increasing costs. 

A 2017 study of fire services by the Placer Local Agency Formation Commission concluded that Placer’s current fire and emergency services system is unsustainable, with many fire agencies reporting that additional funding was needed to meet both existing and future demand. 

With increasing financial pressure on the Placer County Fire system, without a new source of revenue, the county forecasts up to a $9.5 million cumulative funding gap over the next five years that would need to come from the general fund if other revenue sources aren’t developed.

“The question is, how do we get to a fiscally sustainable model that is fair to all taxpayers in Placer County,” said District 5 Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery. 

To help the county develop an action plan for the financial sustainability of Placer County Fire-served areas, the board approved setting up a new ad hoc committee led by Supervisors Jim Holmes and Jennifer Montgomery

“A consolidated fiscal structure is necessary to allow Placer County Fire to function as a modern fire protection and emergency response service,” said Placer Fire Chief George Morris. “This will create a foundation from which additional revenue streams may sustain or improve service for the foreseeable future.”

Applauding efforts in Foresthill to pursue another ballot tax measure, Montgomery encouraged the other independent fire district facing fiscal challenges, Placer Hills Fire, to also request special election funding.

Finally, the board also voted to approve a comprehensive public education and community outreach program around fire services and fiscal sustainability.

“It’s going to be difficult to do this,” said District 3 Supervisor Jim Holmes. “But we need to step up and figure it out.”

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