North Tahoe Fire looks for assessment funds
Between hospital bills and fire district property assessments, some North Shore residents say they’re concerned whether the money they pay to special districts is being properly accounted for.
But officials with the North Tahoe Fire Protection District ” who’ve proposed a $48 assessment be added to the annual property tax bill of properties within the district’s boundaries ” promise that if voters support the assessment, a team of local residents will keep an eye on how the funds are spent.
“The commitment on the part of the district is that the elected board will actually appoint a citizen financial oversight committee,” said North Tahoe Fire Chief Duane Whitelaw.
“If property owners pass this assessment, it can’t be taken away by the state or any other agency, and it must be spent for the intended purposes,” he added.
The proposed assessment is an effort to improve such prevention services as fuels reduction, defensible space inspections and radio communications.
Some residents say they are apprehensive about the fire district’s need for another assessment, just two years after voters passed a $78 parcel tax measure.
But officials cite a major distinction between the two taxes ” money gleaned from the 2005 assessment helps maintain a vital level of service, while money from the proposed tax would support additional services related to fire prevention.
Saying they learned many lessons in this summer’s Angora and Washoe fires, local fire officials contend they need more money to better serve the constituents.
“It’s about doing more in the area of fire prevention, as well as ground operations, particularly during those red flag warning days,” Whitelaw said.
Teresa O’Dette, vice president of the fire district’s board of directors, said the assessment would give property owners the opportunity to say whether or not the fire district is meeting expectations.
“Should we be doing more fuels reduction? Should we have more staff on? All fires start small. I think we’re giving the voters the opportunity to say ‘Yes, we want you to do more,’ or, ‘No, you’re not doing enough,'” she said in a previous interview.
Other homeowners are worried that the ballot identifies them by name.
“I think the big issue isn’t the money, it’s the issue of being able to have a secret ballot,” said Kings Beach resident and North Tahoe Public Utility District board director Jeff Lanini.
Lanini said several senior citizens have expressed concern to him about a ballot identifying them by name and address, and are afraid they won’t get service in a time of need.
“I’m not saying [the district] doesn’t need the money, but I’m saying the way they’re going about it is patently wrong,” Lanini added.
But it’s a state mandate that requires the ballot identify the voter, fire officials said.
“The huge benefit of an assessment is the property owners decide,” Whitelaw said. “The downside, by state law, is property owners assessments are public information.”
The district has hired an unaffiliated company to count the ballots.
Fire officials said they have received a number of questions about the assessment, but have also received overwhelming support in the form of e-mails, letters and phone calls.
“If we don’t get it, we’re still going to deliver a high level of service. But we have a long way to go in the area of fire prevention and we just don’t have the resources to address the 14,000 properties in the fire district,” said Whitelaw.
The timing of the ballot comes at a particularly difficult moment for the district as it coincides with the Tahoe Forest Hospital district’s request for more funding.
“It’s unfortunate that our two elections are crossing over, to an extent, and property owner sentiment is that there are currently a lot of taxes and you have to pick and choose,” Whitelaw said.
“We don’t have the ability to just raise rates without a public vote. It’s up to us to make a compelling argument pro or con. Ultimately, the people that pay the bills will decide,” he added.
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