Voters in unincorporated areas of Madera County will decide Tuesday whether a 1 percent sales tax increase for emergency services is worth approval.
If Measure L is approved, the sales tax in rural Madera County will rise from 7.75 to 8.75 percent. That would generate about $171 million during the measure’s 20-year lifespan, with 80 percent going to firefighting services and 20 percent to the sheriff’s office.
Measure L would eventually add 25 full-time rural firefighters (two on each full-time engine) and nine sheriff deputies, as well as new fire engines and equipment plus greater training and recruitment of Paid Call Firefighters.
Measure L critic John Pero, chair of the Oakhurst/Coarsegold Tea Party, predicts it won’t reach the 67 percent threshold needed to be passed. “I think it’ll fail by about 5 percent or more,” Pero said. “It’s hard to say, but I don’t think it’s going to get the number of votes it needs.”
Bill Ritchey, who chairs the committee Citizens, Firefighters, and Deputies For Measure L 2017, said the vote will likely be very close.
“I’m encouraged and believe it will succeed,” Ritchey said. “But my philosophy is even if it fails by two or three points, even if we get into the 60 percent range, the task of educating the public and making them aware about the issues is a success ... I’m not taking anything to the bank. Every vote counts.”
Both sides agree that Madera County’s firefighting services, and to some degree the sheriff’s office, have been underfunded for years. For example, the Madera County Bass Lake Volunteer Fire Station, No. 14, has an engine that is 27 years old. The industry standard is for front-line engines to be 1 to 10 years old and reserve engines to never be older than 20 years.
At the station, Captain Steve Arata is a one-man volunteer fire department — down from 23 volunteers 17 years ago. “I personally do not like taxes but I have no problem if the funds are used wisely, and that’s why I will vote yes on Measure L,” Arata said.
Cal Fire battalion chief Chris Christopherson said, “At what point do we stop expecting firefighters and deputies to constantly put themselves in life-threatening situations because we don’t want to pay more taxes, but want the services.”
Supporters feel an extra $100 a year or less is minimal and justifiable, and a thriving tourism industry —Yosemite broke records with nearly 5 million visitors last year — will help foot the bill.
“When businesses look to locate to a community, they want to be sure they are not only choosing a place their business will prosper, but also an area their employees and families will be safe,” said Bobby Kahn, executive director of the Madera County Economic Development Commission.
“I fully support it,” said Debra Goodson, a resident of Yosemite Lakes Park. “I think we need more sheriffs and we need more firefighters. For what we’ll get from it, it’s a very small amount to pay per person. And since tourists will end up paying most of it anyway, it’s a great idea.”
“It sounds like a great idea to me,” said Oakhurst resident KC Butterfield. “I don’t see why we shouldn’t pay for it. If we live here, we all have a responsibility to take care of our area.”
County Supervisor Tom Wheeler, District 5, said the measure includes language to ensure all funds go to firefighters and the sheriff’s office, and that current funding for both departments can’t be touched to try and sneak around those provisions. The measure prevents any changes to itself without it being brought back to the public for a vote, Wheeler explained.
“This is all about public safety in Madera County,” Wheeler said. “That’s the same thing we’ve said for the last two years, the last two weeks, or in the last two hours. We need to get the staffing we need, and this is the only way that Madera County can do it. We have no extra money. There are no programs we can cut.”
Foes say they already pay enough in taxes, the county should trim its budget, and funds may not be properly allocated. Though unrelated, many don’t appreciate having to pay the state’s Fire Prevention Fee of more than $135 a year.
“If I had 100 votes, I would vote every single one against it,” said retired judge Ken Ballard of Bass Lake. “It’s a ripoff. We already pay extra taxes, and we don’t need to pay any more.”
Pero said the bottom line is the fire department and sheriff’s office should receive more funding – just not by a tax hike. “You’ve got to put a stake in the ground, a line in the sand, and say enough taxation is enough,” Pero said. “This year, it’s a tax increase. Then next year, it’s another bond, or another tax, or another fee. It’s incrementalism. That’s what I object to.”
Chairwoman Gina Wallace, of the Madera County Republican Party, concurred. “We agree safety is a priority and current discretionary spending should reflect this priority, until all the safety needs of the county are met,” Wallace said.
There are about 35,000 registered voters in unincorporated areas of Madera County.
To check Vote By Mail status or view a list of polling sites, visit www.votemadera.com or call (800) 435-0509. For those voting in person Tuesday, polls will be open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The above article is an abridgment of one that appeared in the Sierra Star.