North Tahoe property owners back fire tax | SierraSun.com

North Tahoe property owners back fire tax

Julie Brown
Sierra Sun

Seth Lightcap/Sierra SunJim Steffans of Muni-Financial scans ballots Wednesday morning at the North Tahoe Fire Station in Kings Beach. The North Tahoe Fire District contracted with independent analysts to administer the Special Fire Assessment election.

After a low-keyed campaign following a disastrous fire season in the Tahoe Basin, property owners in the North Tahoe Fire Protection District have voted to pay an annual fire-suppression assessment to improve fire prevention on the North Shore.

With passage, the Fire Suppression Assessment is forecast to generate $625,000 a year to beef up the district’s budget.

The 45-day mail-in election ended Wednesday, when election consultants and fire personnel opened and counted 5,462 ballots returned by the 10,500 property owners who received them. Another 283 ballots were declared invalid because of missing signatures or other reasons.

The votes were weighted by the size of the assessment each property owner would pay, with single-family homeowners assessed an annual fee starting at $48, and owners of commercial parcels paying a higher rate.

According to district officials, 71 percent of those who returned a ballot ” 3,873 voters ” approved the assessment, representing 67 percent of the assessment those who voted would owe. The “yes” votes represented a combined $183,587, while the 1,589 “no” votes represented “$89,567.

The fire district’s board of directors is expected to certify the property tax assessment at its next meeting.

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“I think the community is aware of how important fire prevention is, especially in light of what’s happening in Southern California,” said board President Russ Potts. “It’s great to know that they’re behind us. It gives us an opportunity to continue forward and actually improve to a higher level of fire prevention.”

The tax revenues will help improve the district’s fire-prevention efforts and outreach, as well as expand its capacity to fight fires on the ground.

North Tahoe Fire Chief Duane Whitelaw said the 55-percent return rate was the highest of any election the fire district has sponsored. An impartial third-party consultant counted the ballots at the Kings Beach fire station Wednesday, following a public hearing in Tahoe City the previous night.

“While the fire district is pleased with the results, we take all of the comments that were made, both positive and negative, to heart,” Whitelaw said in a phone interview. “There’s a lot of work to do now, and that can only be accomplished with the cooperation and support of everyone involved, specifically property owners. Our risk of fire can’t be overstated, and to that extent, we have a lot ahead of us.”

About a dozen members of the public attended Tuesday’s hearing, most expressing concern over the election process, the assessment itself and how the money would be spent, Whitelaw said.

Tahoe City resident Ritch Davidson said in a phone interview that he voted for the special assessment, but remained concerned the measure contained no “sunset” date when the tax would expire.

Resident Tom Pandola, formerly with the Los Angeles City Fire Department, said that while some debated the tax, the district has an overriding responsibility to fight fires and prevent them when possible.

“I understand the whole challenge they face with the fire situation up here,” Pandola said in a phone interview. “Nobody likes paying more taxes, but the bottom line is let’s protect things now.”

The fire tax will first be collected with property tax bills for the 2008-09 fiscal year.

A five-member citizen’s financial oversight committee will be formed in the coming spring to oversee the district’s use of the assessment funds. The committee’s first task will be to advise the board of directors on budget expenditures for the following fiscal year.

“We think it’s really important to get a broad representation of community members on the citizen committee because we want to be able to maximize the use of the assessment dollars,” Whitelaw said. “We want to get the best heads thinking about this and get the most work done.”

The assessment funds are earmarked to pay for personnel to expand the district’s defensible space inspections, chipping program and fuels reduction. The revenue will also be used to modernize communication systems, contract water-dropping helicopters, plan neighborhood-specific evacuation routes and improve response times by staffing more engines during red flag days, Whitelaw said.

In light of the devastation caused by the current Southern California fires and this summer’s Angora and Washoe fires in the Tahoe Basin, local officials said the need to improve the district’s service and capacity was even more pronounced.

“It was pretty vital that the community or the district saw the need based on our recommendations, because we are constantly fighting to maintain the tax moneys that we have been entitled to in the past,” said board Director Don Hale. “The cost of operating the district just keeps going up incrementally each year, and we just weren’t able to maintain the pace. And then with the added danger of the drought situation that we’ve got going, we just need additional staff and personnel to help ward off these major fire situations.”

The $48 assessment for single-family residences comes two years after district property owners passed a $78 parcel tax measure in 2005.