Tuolumne County will need more money just to maintain the current level of fire protection services that the public has come to expect, regardless of how it plans to provide them in the future.

That was the message government officials and elected county supervisors sent to the public at a special meeting on Tuesday to go over the recommendations from a recently completed $70,000 study of the county’s existing fire and first responder system.

“I don’t like taxes … but all the options to me, no matter what we do, it looks like we’re still going to fall short moving forward,” said County Supervisor Anaiah Kirk, who represents District 3. “I think we’re going to have to have a conversation real quick about increased revenue through that, also benefit assessments and parcel fees.”

The study determined there was a shortfall of more than $1.5 million in the county’s overall fire protection system, which includes the county fire department that’s managed by Cal Fire and 10 independent fire agencies.

The shortfall is expected to grow to more than $2 million by 2022 without any additional revenue or changes to the current system.

Deputy County Administrator Maureen Frank said the county fire department alone is currently projected to be $500,000 in the hole for the next fiscal year that begins on July 1, even without putting any money toward replacing vehicles that are close to no longer meeting modern standards.

Frank said this was the first time she’s been unable to balance the county fire department’s budget in the 24 years she’s been doing it.

“As I’ve said before, the way we’re going right now is not sustainable,” she said. “That’s hard to say, but it’s the reality.”

District 2 Supervisor Ryan Campbell asked what would happen if the county didn’t look at bringing in more revenue, to which Frank responded that some fire districts and departments would find themselves unable to continue providing services.

Reasons for the problems with the current system include a sharp decline in the number of volunteer firefighters, reduced property values following the last recession, increasing costs to replace equipment, and more intense and frequent fires that have caused annual operating expenses to increase by an average of about 4 percent annually since 2013.

The number of volunteer firefighters in the county fire department alone has declined since the late 1990s from about 200 to 62, which is most frequently blamed on more cumbersome state requirements for training to become one.

In addition, 12 out of the 43 fire engines and three out of the five water tenders throughout the county’s entire system are recommended for replacement because they are at least 25 years old.

The total estimated cost to replace all of the vehicles is between $5.4 million and $7.5 million.

Due to safety upgrades that have been developed in the past 10 to 15 years, the National Fire Protection Association also now says that any fire apparatus older than 15 years should be replaced.

Frank said 18 of the 21 fire engines in the county fire department alone are older than 15 years and would need to be placed to follow the newer standard.

The study looked at different options for ways to improve the efficiency and sustainability of the county’s fire system and determined the best would be to form a countywide fire district, which would allow the county to determine the appropriate service levels for different areas and consider a benefit assessment to stabilize funding.

Such a district was recommended to include the county fire department under the current contract with Cal Fire and all of the independent fire districts, with the exception of the Sonora Fire Department that’s operated by the city and Tuolumne Rancheria Fire Department that’s operated by Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians.

Frank noted that a “core team” consisting of herself, other county officials, and all fire chiefs provided input on the study, though many were frustrated by the conclusions and disputed the way some data was analyzed.

Tuolumne Rancheria Fire Chief Jerry McGowan penned a letter on behalf of the Tuolumne County Fire Chiefs Association saying they could not support the study in its entirety due to their issues with how it was conducted.

The study was the third of the county’s fire and first responder system in the past 10 years, though it was the first to be conducted by an outside contractor.

Two previous studies in 2010 and 2012 were conducted in-house by county officials, which also determined that consolidation may be the best way to improve the system. Part of the goal of hiring the Matrix Consulting Group to do the latest study was to get an independent opinion.

“It’s not just the county saying it, it’s not just the fire districts saying it, it’s an independent source looking at our finances and revenue projections said that we can’t be sustainable,” Frank said.

County supervisors said on Tuesday that they believed the time for conducting studies is over due to the mounting concerns about the future of the system.

District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer, who serves as board chairman, said the new study didn’t tell him anything he didn’t learn from the previous study that was completed shortly after he took office seven years ago.

“We’re studying this to death, literally,” he said. “In the last six or seven years, we haven’t made one baby step in solving the problem, and it’s just gotten worse because all of the equipment has just gotten older, (the issues) with volunteers has just gotten worse, everything’s gotten worse, so we need to get on with it.”

Rodefer said he believes the board should keep the dialogue open, but also set some milestones for getting things done.

The elected boards for the independent fire districts could be a stumbling block if they don’t come together and work with the county, Rodefer said, so he urged people in those districts to talk with their representatives.

“The five of us up here have no authority over them,” he said.

Rodefer also touched on the need for additional revenue and asked the roughly 50 people who attended the meeting to raise a hand if they were happy with the condition of county roads, which also have less funding than what’s needed just to keep up with routine maintenance.

No hands were raised.

District 4 Supervisor John Gray also stressed the importance of the need for collaboration with the fire districts, as any countywide solution would eventually require voters in those districts to approve their dissolution.

“I was told one time we have too many fire empires in Tuolumne County,” he said. “If we could put some of these things aside and do what we’re supposed to do, have the best public’s best interest at heart and not necessarily our empire, then we could come up with something that would be better and work.”

The board ultimately directed county staff to begin developing a plan for migrating to a countywide system, determining a sustainable budget for it, and how it would be funded.

District 1 Supervisor Sherri Brennan said she agreed with a board member for the Strawberry Fire Protection District who spoke at the meeting about how the county should look at finding ways to get more volunteer firefighters, but the equipment replacement costs alone will require some “very difficult conversations about funding streams.”

“I hope the public is listening,” she said. “I really hope the public is listening.”

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.