Fire strategy needs support, cooperation

Union Democrat staff

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.

11812862
The Union Democrat
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