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Fire strategy needs support, cooperation

    While Tuolumne County Administrator Craig Pedro, his staff and the county’s fire chiefs are hard at work drafting a comprehensive protection plan and response plan, voters and districts are also shaping the future.
    With results that range from good to not so good:

    • Mi-Wuk-Sugar Pine Fire District voters a passed benefit assessments that could increase income by nearly $100,000 a year and will keep a paid chief and firefighters on staff. Had the measure failed, the district would have by necessity become an all- volunteers operation with only a limited ability to respond to calls.
    Had that happened, said Fire District Board Chairman Chuck Wagner, property insurance ratiings in the district would have taken a hit and premiums would likely jump.
    For the measure’s success, credit board members for both perseverance and creativity.
    District voters rejected parcel tax measures in both 2007 and 2008, with neither coming close to garnering the two-thirds’ margin needed for approval. The best either did was 58 percent — 8 percentage points short of approval.
  So directors decided to go with a benefit assessment, in which the weight of votes cast is based on acreage and improvements owned. A simple majority is necessary for passage, and the Mi-Wuk-Sugar Pine measure was carried with a whopping 73 percent of the vote.
     “Property owners who live outside the district made the difference,” said Wagner of the mail-in ballot measure, which levies a charge of $170 per single family residence year.
    The charge replaces a decade-old $80 per-home assessment, which expired this year.
    Although some objected to the property owners-only vote, those who vote marked ballots that told them exactly what they would pay. When it comes to taxation with representation, it’s tough to beat that.
    The 10-year assessment, supplementing property tax revenue of about $136,000 and more than doubling income from the expired parcel tax to about $180,000 a year, makes the district key player in county strategy. Chief Randy Miller foresees not only solvency, but more services and expanded programs. 

    • The Strawberry Fire District, plagued by problems for much of the year, in February made headlines when its volunteers failed to respond to a blaze at the Strawberry Store, just a stone’s throw from the station. Now its doors are closed, which is a step in the right direction.
    That’s because during the closure Strawberry volunteers will undergo training and pass tests qualifying them to work with Tuolumne County Fire Department personnel. This could be a step toward mutual aid agreements with the county and other departments.
    Although some Strawberry board members had insisted aid agreements were in place, they in fact were not. So the district is building its way up from ground zero to again being an effective force. Because district property owners are collectively paying out $55,000 a year, they deserve nothing less.
    •  The Columbia Fire District, on the other hand, is cutting expenses to the bone after voters narrowly rejected at $80-per-home tax that would have raised $28,000 a year to supplement about $50,000 in property tax revenue.
    No longer, for instance, will the district respond to medical calls beyond its boundaries, which basically cover the town of Columbia. Which leads to questions about district responsibilities beyond borders and the growing impact of medical aid calls.
    Meanwhile, because Columbia’s parcel tax measure failed by just seven votes, directors are considering another ballot run.

    • The Tuolumne Fire District Board, which is seeking a large annexation of Tuolumne County Fire Department propery to help meet expenses, otherwise seems in disarray. Because of employee complaints, Chief Ben Oyarzo has been put on leave. And, thanks to suit Oyarzo filed, two directors who did not live in the district have resigned. The future looks uncertain.
 With this backdrop, the countywide fire study continues.
While CAO Pedro is encouraged by the the results of the Mi-Wuk-Sugar Pine election and by potential improvements in other departments, he points out that cooperation and interdependency will be the key to any successful countywide fire strategy.
    It’s something our departments and districts should keep in mind.

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