It appears that a measure to fund three full-time firefighters will go before Cambria voters June 5. What remains to be decided is just how much property owners will have to pay if such a measure is approved.
The board will decide that matter Thursday, Feb. 8, during a special meeting continued from Monday, when members of the public packed the Veterans Memorial Building to support maintaining funding for three full-time firefighters.
That funding is scheduled to lapse in March, when a two-year federal grant runs out.
The crowd for Monday’s meeting was so large that the side corridor adjacent to the main hall had to be opened up to accommodate extra chairs. Nearly a dozen members of the Fire Department stood at the back of the hall, along with other attendees.
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Who would be taxed?
Sixteen members of the public spoke Monday in favor of putting the issue on the June 5 ballot, with no one voicing opposition, and President Amanda Rice said there was a consensus on the board that voters would get a chance to weigh in.
But Rice and Vice President Jim Bahringer both questioned the structure of the measure prepared for their consideration Monday — a proposal that would raise $300,000 by levying a $50 tax on each of 6,000 pieces of property in the Cambria Community Services District boundaries.
They suggested that district staff members research and prepare an alternative proposal that would only charge owners of developed property. Such a tax would need to be higher for each lot because it would involve fewer parcels, Bahringer said, but he argued that it would create a more reliable revenue stream for the district and ensure continued funding for the firefighting positions.
If lots were merged or retired under the CCSD’s Buildout Reduction Program, fewer would be subject to the proposed tax, Bahringer said. That could leave the district with less money than anticipated to pay for the firefighters. If only developed lots were assessed, by contrast, the district could actually increase its revenues as houses are built on currently undeveloped lots.
Director David Pierson said his preliminary calculations would call for a tax of about $85 per parcel if the measure were restricted to developed lots.
Directors voted 5-0 to have staff offer two alternatives Thursday: the original $50-a-lot plan on all lots and a more restrictive proposal taxing only developed parcels.
That didn’t sit well with some in the crowd, who wanted the district to approve a ballot measure immediately. One audience member stood and objected that exempting undeveloped lots was unfair, because a fire could just as easily start on one of those parcels as it could on a developed piece of land.
That wasn’t the only issue of fairness raised during the meeting. For instance, although all property owners would be taxed under the initial plan, only those who live in the district would get a chance to vote on the proposal.
Cambria real estate broker Bob Kasper also called it “an unfair tax for some people,” saying that someone with 11 small properties would end up paying $550 a year, while a lot owner with one large parcel would pay just $50.
Kasper nonetheless said he supported putting the issue to a vote, as did others who spoke.
Fire Capt. Emily Torlano, speaking on behalf of the International Association of Fire Fighters local, said her group had received “an overwhelming response from our community” and “overwhelming email and social media support.” She said the group, which distributed yellow fliers advocating for the measure, had collected numerous signatures favoring it.
The measure would maintain staffing at current levels for engine crews, which consist of four members: three full-time firefighters and one reserve. They’ve been at those levels for the past two years, since a federal SAFER grant provided funding to hire three additional firefighters.
But the grant money for those positions runs out in March, which means the district must either eliminate them or find another way to fund them. A ballot measure, which would require a two-thirds vote, would provide such a mechanism.
Some in the audience cited the federal government’s so-called “two in, two out” guidelines in arguing for such a measure. Those guidelines require at least two crew members to remain outside a burning structure and two others to enter. The district would be constrained during structure fires if its engines used three-person crews, Fire Chief William Hollingsworth has said.
“If somebody’s trapped in a residence, we want our firefighters to stay safe,” former Fire Chief Bob Putney told the board Monday. “We need to rely on a well-staffed, well-trained fire department.”
Other members of the public argued that Cambria’s remote location makes it essential to maintain the department’s current level of staffing.
If somebody’s trapped in a residence, we want our firefighters to stay safe.
Bob Putney, retired Cambria fire chief
“We are really on our own,” former senior sheriff’s Deputy Todd Steeb said. “You can’t rely on other agencies. It’s going to take them a while to get here.”
The district is operating under a tight timeline, as it must file paperwork with the county before the end of the month in order to qualify a measure for the June ballot. (District Counsel Tim Carmel has said it would cost $10,000 to $20,000 to put the measure to a vote.) The district is committed to funding the positions from its general fund through the end of the fiscal year, June 30. If the measure passes, it would continue to do so until funding from the measure kicks in around the first of next year, board members said.
General Manager Jerry Gruber suggested a loan from the general public to bridge the resulting six-month gap.
Directors voted to reconvene at 11 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 8, to vote on the ballot measure.
In other matters Monday, the board decided it will meet at 2 p.m. on the fourth Thursday of each month during the coming year. Four meetings will be moved to the second or third Thursday to accommodate holidays and special events.
The board also made assignments for committees and liaison posts. Bahringer and Director Harry Farmer will serve on a standing committee for infrastructure; Pierson and Rice will be on a standing finance committee; and Pierson and Director Aaron Wharton will serve on an ad-hoc committee for emergency services (including the Fire Department).