About 4,000 voters who live in the 225-square-mile Ebbetts Pass Fire District will vote in April and May on a special tax measure to fund continued operations of fire, ambulance and paramedic services in the upper Highway 4 corridor in Calaveras County.

The district has a $400,000 budget deficit. If voters reject the proposed Measure A, fire, ambulance and paramedic services will be cut starting July 1, according to Mike Johnson, the Ebbetts Pass Fire District chief.

According to the district board of directors, Measure A increases would be in addition to existing special taxes from 1998 and 2004, which are $128 for improved properties and $38 for unimproved properties.

If the measure passes, the special tax for improved parcels would increase by $134, for a total of $262 in year one, with an increase of $6.28 annually for 10 years. For unimproved parcels, the special tax would increase by $43.10, for a total of $81.11 in year one, with an increase of $2.42 annually for 10 years.

If Measure A does not pass, Ebbetts Pass Fire District will have to reduce ambulance service from two ambulances to one ambulance on a regular basis, according to the district.

“Fewer ambulances would result in longer wait times for residents in need of medical attention, which could have major health implications,” a district statement says. “This would also affect the District’s Insurance Services Office Class 2 rating. . . . If services are cut back due to the budget deficit and the District’s ISO rating is downgraded, it would lead to increased homeowners insurance rates and fewer insurance agencies would write policies in the area.”

All-mail election

The Fire District serves about 8,000 people who live along Highway 4 between Forest Meadows and Bear Valley.

As of Friday, there were 4,115 registered voters in the Ebbetts Pass Fire District, Amie Yepez, elections coordinator for Calaveras County, said. The measure will pass with approval from two-thirds of the voters. Eligible voters are expected to receive ballots in the mail in early April.

“This is an all-mail election,” Yepez said Friday. She emphasized there will be no polling places set up. Election Day will be Tuesday May 7, and that will be the deadline date for ballots to be mailed and postmarked. Ballots must be received at the Calaveras County elections office no later than May 10.

District personnel and others affiliated with the district have been conducting focus group meetings three times a month for the past four months, Johnson said Friday morning during a break from the most recent focus group.

About six people attend each focus group meeting and they represent the district, the 35-member Ebbetts Pass Firefighters Association, the firefighters’ labor representative, Local 3581, the elected board of directors, and Joel Metzger.

Metzger is known as a spokesperson and manager of external affairs, conservation and grants for Calaveras County Water District in San Andreas. In this case, Metzger said Friday, he is working on the public outreach side as a consultant for the Ebbetts Pass Firefighters Association, and he is not representing CCWD in any way.

Staffing

Ebbetts Pass Firefighters Association has 35 members, including 28 firefighters, full-time and part-time, paid and volunteer, Johnson said.

The district has about 20 professional firefighters and 10 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. These numbers remain relatively accurate in 2019, Johnson said.

The district’s annual budget is $4,475,168 million for 2018-19, 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.

1998 and 2004

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.

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 current board of directors for Ebbetts Pass Fire District are J. Scott McKinney, Jon Dashner, Dennis Clemens, Thomas Sullivan and Michael Barr.

Groveland CSD Fire

People who count on Groveland Community Services District, Tuolumne County and Cal Fire for fire services are also looking at possible fee increases, in 2020, to keep their same level of firefighting service and response.

Voters who represent about 3,700 Groveland residents may be asked to approve or reject a new tax or assessment for fire services next year, the Groveland Community Services District general manager and board members said in late February.

Groveland CSD fire 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.

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, Kampa said, with a minimum of four firefighters to run two fire engines.

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

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