About 8,000 people who live in the 225-square-mile Ebbetts Pass Fire District get a chance in December to have their say on how to address the agency’s current $398,913 budget shortfall.

A town hall public hearing to share information about the district budget is scheduled at 6 p.m. Dec. 11 at Independence Hall in White Pines. A public information officer for the district wants people to know “Ebbetts Pass Fire District needs your help in deciding our future.”

The district has 21 professional firefighters and nine volunteers and interns who staff four fire stations and provide paramedic and advanced life support service. A 1995 study showed the district is home to 6,000 residences, including more than 400 mobile homes and 230 commercial properties, with total assessed values of about $850 million. Those numbers remain relatively accurate in 2018, Mike Johnson, the Ebbetts Pass Fire District chief, said Wednesday in a phone interview.

The district’s annual budget is $4,475,168 million for 2018-19, Johnson said. Johnson said the district relies on property taxes, separate voter-approved tax assessments, and insurance payments to fund its budget.

Specifically, the district is budgeted for $1,962,772 from local property taxes collected by the county tax assessor in 2018; $829,213 in 2004 voter-approved assessments; $362,276 in 1998 voter-approved assessments; and $750,000 in insurance payments.

That leaves a gap of $398,913, Johnson said. District staff and administration have been anticipating the need to approach residents and property owners for at least a decade because they always knew the 1998 and 2004 assessments will remain flat, with no mechanism to increase either. Cost-cutting measures have helped the district get this far without running too far into the red, but now is the time to request more funding from the people the district serves, Johnson said.

“There’s no more fat to trim,” Johnson said. “We’ve been running a lean operation for some time. We have an aging fleet. We hope to put capital outlay back on line, invest in leasing new ambulances and utility vehicles. Our newest engine is 25 years old.”

Two of the district’s three budgets are unsustainable, but Johnson believes the public will back their fire agency and he expects Ebbetts Pass Fire District will be around forever. Johnson says he and his crews don’t want to be put in a position where fiscally the district has to change its level of service.

“In order to sustain our services, including advanced life support, we have to raise more revenue,” Johnson said. “We’ll do that math and hopefully work out a solution. I’m hoping we can get a majority consensus that people want to keep the same level of service and they’ll be in favor of helping us break even. We have to ask them for more funding.”

The Dec. 11 meeting might be a first meeting of several, and it might be the only meeting necessary, Johnson said.

“If everybody that shows up says ‘We’re all in, we support you in your efforts to balance the budget, we’re willing to fund another assessment,’ then that might be the only meeting,” Johnson said.

Rodney Hendrix, a battalion chief and public information officer with EPFD, says voters approved special tax assessments to help fund the district’s paramedic engine program in 1998 and 2004. Johnson said the 1998 assessment is $39 annually, and perpetually, per improved lot, which refers to land with a structure, a home, or some other improvement on it, and $11 per unimproved lot.

In 2004, voters separately approved special tax assessments of $89 per improved lot and $26 per unimproved lot, collected annually and perpetually, to fund ambulance service and Station 3 staffing. Johnson emphasized there’s no mechanism to increase either of those assessments.

“We are trying to reach as many people as possible within our fire district, about a town hall/public hearing meeting to address our funding issues,” Hendrix said.

The district was formed in December 1964 to provide structural fire protection during winter periods when the local California Division of Forestry station was not staffed. It has been governed by a five-member board of directors since January 1965.

The estimated permanent population of the district is about 8,000 people, with weekend and holiday population estimates increasing from 15,000 to more than 20,000 at times. The district covers east Calaveras County, including private lands and public lands in the Stanislaus National Forest, at elevations 2,200 to 7,000 feet.

Station 1 is at 1037 Blagen Road in Arnold, Station 2 is at 5510 Meko Drive in Big Trees Village, Station 3 is at 40 Canyon View Drive in Hathaway Pines, and Station 4 is at 2038 Moran Road in Pinebrook.

The current board of directors for Ebbetts Pass Fire District are J. Scott McKinney, Jon Dashner, Dennis Clemens, Thomas Sullivan and Michael Barr. Their next scheduled meeting is after the Dec. 11 town hall public hearing, at 9 a.m. Dec. 18 at Station 1, 1037 Blagen Road, Arnold.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.