Voters who represent about 3,700 Groveland residents may be asked to approve or reject a new tax or assessment next year if they want to keep their same level of firefighting service and response, the Groveland Community Services District general manager and board members said Thursday.

A new tax or assessment will likely be necessary, because district fire revenues are declining and failing to keep up with increasing costs, and the reserve fund is depleting, the general manager and board members said during a two-hour workshop in Groveland.

In the past seven years, GCSD Fire has gone from breaking even with expenses and revenues totaling about $1.2 million each, to a situation where budgeted revenue and expenses have been running in the red several years, and existing financial reserves that have covered those shortfalls could be depleted in three to five years, district staff said.

Costs are expected to rise from the current $1.49 million for 2018-19 to an estimated $1.86 million for 2024-25, while property tax revenues are expected to remain flatter, from $1.06 million for 2018-19 to an estimated $1.2 million in 2024-25. The reserves fund has about $800,00 left in it so far this fiscal year.

The district used to have its own fire department, but that ended in June 2012 when voters resoundingly rejected Measure D — a special tax of $107 a year per developed parcel, and $53 a year per vacant parcel — by 839 votes to 586, or 58.8 percent to 41.1 percent. In addition, property-owner approved assessments that used to bring in $298,000 annually expired in June 2012.

The district’s Board of Directors then voted in August 2012 to contract with Tuolumne County Fire and Cal Fire for emergency fire protection, medical-rescue response and dispatch services. The current agreement runs through June 2020.

The district still owns four fire engines, dating to 2010, the 1990s, 1984 and 1953, and two buildings, the central fire station near downtown Groveland, and a garage by the Pine Mountain Lake Airport, said Pete Kampa, the district’s general manager, and Josh White, chief of Tuolumne County Fire and the Cal Fire Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit.

Tuolumne County Fire and Cal Fire staff the district’s equipment and facilities 24-7 with a minimum of four firefighters to run two fire engines, Kampa said.

The workshop Thursday is expected to be the first of many public meetings, to plan for the future of GCSD Fire and to explain the emerging fiscal crisis to people who need to know, said board president Janice Kwiatkowski. GCSD Fire cannot use revenues from GCSD water and sewer funds. With recent utility rate increases fresh in many GCSD ratepayers’ minds, explaining to people why more money is needed for GCSD Fire is going to be a challenge.

There were about 15 seats available in the audience at Thursday’s workshop, and about half were taken up by county staff, including Tracie Riggs, county administrator, David Gonsalves, county Community Resources Agency director, John Gray, the county’s elected District 4 supervisor, White, and other Tuolumne County-Cal Fire personnel. Others in the audience included concerned ratepayers and residents.

“We’re here to listen and see what’s happening,” Riggs said before the workshop started. “We have a vested interest in what’s happening here on the 120 corridor.”

Thursday’s workshop is just the beginning of discussing GCSD Fire’s budget woes, Kampa told said. GCSD Fire has a revenue and expenses problem. They’re not balanced, and GCSD Fire’s budget will go into the negative this year, Kampa said.

“I think there’s absolutely no doubt we’re going to need additional funding,” Kampa said.

The communities of Groveland and Big Oak Flat are essentially an island, isolated from other fire agencies, “all by ourselves,” said John Armstrong, a GCSD board member.

Robert Swan, another board member, said he hopes the district will get lots of public feedback on what level of fire service Groveland residents want. It’s important to expose people to the facts of Groveland CSD Fire’s dire financial straits.

Another board member, Spencer Edwards, emphasized he and others with the district will have to go out and talk to people, “so people know the wall we’re up against. … The answer is out there, but it’s in the community. People have to let us know what they want.”

Swan reiterated that if people want the same level of fire service, there will be revenue shortfalls, so “clearly we are looking at another assessment or special tax event coming up. It’s the elephant in the room. We’re talking about a tax.”

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

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