Tuolumne County supervisors formed a committee on Tuesday that will recommend new fees and taxes due to the county fire department’s dire financial situation.

Some of the options presented to the board by the county and fire officials at a public meeting included a potential parcel tax, as well as creating new fees for development projects, business licenses, assisted-living facilities, hotel rooms, RV parks and campgrounds.

Deputy County Administrator Maureen Frank prefaced the discussion by saying that the fire department’s budget for the current fiscal year through June 30 is still $500,000 in the hole despite being stripped down to levels that make them uneasy.

“We believe it’s imperative to come before your board to look at various options in trying to stabilize the county fire (department) and funding for it,” she said.

More than half the fire department’s revenue currently comes from property taxes, while the rest comes mostly from state and federal funding, service charges, and subsidies from the county’s General Fund.

Most of the other basic services provided by the county are paid for with money from the General Fund, which currently has about $3.7 million less than what’s needed to continue funding those services through June 30.

All county departments funded by money from the General Fund are scheduled to give presentations to the board at special meetings on Wednesday and Thursday about the minimum services they are required to provide by the state, as well as what they would have to cut to make up the difference.

Cal Fire provides staffing and manages the department under a contract that costs the county about $3 million to $3.5 million per year, though the county is responsible for equipment and facilities.

The county needs another $7.5 million in the coming years to replace over a dozen fire engines and water tenders that have exceeded their recommended life span and do not comply with modern safety and efficiency standards.

“It’s getting pretty dire,” said Andrew Murphy, assistant chief of the county fire department.

County Supervisor Karl Rodefer, who serves as board chairman, said he wasn’t prepared to say whether he supported or opposed any of the options presented on Tuesday without more information.

Rodefer recommended, and the rest of the board agreed, to form an ad-hoc committee that would consist of county staff and two elected supervisors.

“We have a problem,” he said. “I’m not sure that problem is really well defined… I think staff needs more guidance than we can give you right now in coming back to us with a menu of options.”

The board also agreed to Rodefer’s recommendation of appointing County Supervisor John Gray to serve on the committee, in addition to County Supervisor Ryan Campbell, who volunteered for the other spot.

One of the reasons Rodefer cited for wanting to form the committee was because the board only has until Dec. 6 to put a tax measure on the ballot for the March 3 primary election, if it decides to do that.

California law requires voters to approve any new local taxes or increases.

Rodefer said the committee’s task is not to find a solution, which will have to be voted on by the board, but to “better define the magnitude of the problems, how we need to address those, and what are some of the layers to the layer cake of solution that the full board might consider.”

“We need to get moving on this,” he said. “We can’t keep doing this on a two-week cycle.”

The other four supervisors expressed their preferences on some or all of the options presented to them before agreeing to form the committee, with Campbell, Gray and County Supervisor Anaiah Kirk saying they supported a parcel tax.

County Supervisor Sherri Brennan didn’t express support or opposition for the tax, but she wanted to make sure it was done fairly for people with agricultural land under Williamson Act contracts, which provide property tax relief in exchange for a 10-year agreement to not develop the land.

One of the proposals discussed was a flat fee on all of the approximately 27,275 parcels within the county fire department’s responsibility area.

County officials estimated that a $75 annual fee on each parcel would provide an additional $2 million per year for the county fire department, while a $110 fee would provide $3 million and $130 fee would provide $3.5 million.

Murphy said a $130 annual fee would stabilize the budget into the foreseeable future, give them enough money to replace all of the aging vehicles within seven years, build two fire stations within 10 years and have money left over to save for future capital improvements.

The fee wouldn’t apply to parcels within independent districts that provide fire services, such as Twain Harte Community Services District, Groveland Community Services District, and Columbia Fire Protection District.

However, some independent districts have expressed support for joining the county on a unified ballot measure for a tax.

Pete Kampa, general manager of the Groveland Community Services District, said the district needs an additional $400,000 a year for its fire department by June 2021 or else it won’t be able to provide the same level of service it does currently.

Kampa stressed the importance of explaining the situation in a way people understand, such as how an annual fee of $130 is less than the cost of buying one Happy Meal from McDonald’s every week for a year.

“Sometimes we think we have to save costs at all cost because it’s going to impact this or that, or people aren’t going to support it, but we as the leaders in the community really need to put it out there,” he said.

A special tax measure specifically earmarked for fire services would need to be approved by two-thirds of voters in the election to pass, as opposed to a simple majority.

The county could also do a benefit assessment that would require approval from a simple majority of people who own parcels, but it could also be repealed at any time by a simple majority.

Tuolumne resident David Peters, who spoke earlier during the meeting in opposition to the cannabis industry, said he would be at the forefront of the fight against any proposed parcel fee.

“You got guys like me who have social security, a small retirement, trying to make a living here, and my parcel fee list I get every year from schools and everything is getting longer and longer,” he said. “That can’t be maintained and have middle class people stay in the area.”

Peters reminded the board of the widespread anger in the county over the state’s former fee for fire protection services on parcels within Cal Fire’s responsibility area, which was later suspended by state lawmakers.

Gray and Campbell later said they opposed the state’s fee, but a local tax would be different because the money would go directly to the county and not the state.

Kirk said he’s a property owner and supports the tax because he doesn’t want to see the county become like the town of Paradise, which was decimated by the Camp Fire last year that killed 85 people.

Most supervisors said they didn’t support a potential fee on new development, which are imposed in other places like Calaveras County and intended to offset a project’s impact on fire services.

Those who expressed opposition said they believed adding a development fee would further stifle much-needed growth. Developer Mike Lemke and development consultant Ron Kopf also spoke against the proposal.

There were 65 single-family homes built in the county last year, in addition to 18 mobile residential structures and five commercial buildings. That would generate less than $200,000 per year in revenue.

Other fees discussed on Tuesday included a business license fee, which most supervisors said they supported.

The fee wouldn’t be intended to generate a large amount of revenue, but would provide data that would help the county keep better track of economic activity in the unincorporated area.

“There’s a whole universe of stuff out there in this unincorporated area that we really don’t understand as well as we would like to,” Rodefer said.

Supervisors also discussed a potential fee on assisted-living facilities because the fire department responds to a large amount of calls for assistance from such facilities, typically to help an employee lift someone who has fallen.

Murphy said 25 percent of the Mono Vista fire station’s calls for service last year were for assists at five care facilities.

They also discussed a potential fee on stays in hotel rooms, RV parks, campgrounds, and short-term rentals like Airbnb. County officials estimated a $5 fee could generate close to $1 million per year.

The county has a Transient Occupancy Tax that’s 10 percent of the price charged for each room or lodging, but that doesn’t apply to RV parks or campgrounds and 25 percent goes to the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau.

Murphy said they didn’t keep track of the calls for service related to people from out of town, but he believed the county ambulance service kept track of statistics for their transports and would attempt to obtain them.

No date was announced for the first meeting of the committee looking deeper at the proposals.

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

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