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Budget, tax measures weighed at Newcastle town hall meeting

Residents, firefighters in attendance
By: Amber Marra, Journal Staff Writer
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New candidates and incumbents of the Newcastle fire board went head-to-head on the logistical and financial issues of the district at a town hall meeting Tuesday night.

Along with the fire board candidates, proponents and opponents of Measure K also spoke at Tuesday's meeting in the Newcastle Elementary School gym. The meeting was held by the Newcastle Community Association.

Though concerned residents made up much of the audience on Tuesday, firefighters from Newcastle, Auburn, Cal Fire and surrounding areas sat on bleachers to the back of the gym.

Tuesday's meeting started with a presentation from Cal Fire Chief Brad Harris, who went through the specifics of how much it costs to build and operate a fire department.

"As your fire board and fire chief are developing your budget there are numerous cost factors that have to be considered in order for them to adequately supply, train and equip the firefighters you want responding to your home," Harris said.

After Harris explained the ins and outs of building a fire station in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Essential Services Building Act, along with the personnel, training, equipment, fleet and maintenance cost of operating a fire protection district, it was time to discuss Measure K.

Measure K will be on the November ballot and would reform the previously passed Measure B, which charges property owners a $146.46 parcel tax for a new Newcastle firehouse and benefits and pay increases for firefighters. It includes up to a 3 percent tax increase yearly.

Measure K would cap the $146.46 per parcel tax and the 3 percent tax increase after three years and reduce it to $30 per parcel for property owners.

Like most Measure B supporters, Michael Leydon doesn't think Measure K will raise enough money to pay for the wage increases and the new firehouse because he said it will only raise $900,000 before it is capped after three years. Leydon, who is also the president of the Newcastle Elementary School District Board of Trustees, spoke in opposition to Measure K for five minutes on Tuesday.

"Measure K will not build a safe, new fire station," Leydon said. "As we heard just moments ago from Chief Harris, there are very significant costs to building a fire station, no matter what method you choose, no matter what type of building you choose there are significant costs in terms of the land development, in terms of the infrastructure development, in terms of making sure you provide all of the requirements called for by the California building code and Essential Building Act."

Suzie Brown, a Newcastle resident, spoke for five minutes in support of Measure K, calling Measure B "an excessive tax that is going to go on forever." She also listed multiple Newcastle residents whose property taxes are set to increase past their financial means along with Measure F and the new $150 fire fee for those who live outside of unincorporated areas.

"We have Mrs. Ritchie, who paid $312 last year and this year she will pay $1,080. Mrs. Marie Scott paid $115 and this year she'll pay $573...These people all have two things in common: They all own multiple parcels of undeveloped land and are all in their mid-80s," Brown said.

Candidates speak

After the Measure K support and opposition left the floor, the three incumbents and three challengers for the Newcastle Fire Protection District Board of Directors spoke for three minutes each.

Dave Ward, a retired ranch manager went first, attacking the incumbents for what he feels has been overspending and inadequate planning under the current leadership. Ward also directly went against the campaign phrase used by incumbent vice chairman Bob Stearns, "stay the course."

"They have no plan to rein in their reckless spending habits now or in the future, no plan to start living within their means. The course they speak of is a recipe for disaster," Ward said. "I say now is the time to change course and plan for the future, not stay the course and simply react to future problems."

When Stearns later had his three minutes to speak, he used the slogan "stay the course" to communicate to voters that he, like many other Measure B supporters, feels Measure K will not pay for firefighter pay increases or a new station.

"The time has come to move into the 21st century. Ask yourself this question: How much value to have on protecting your family and property in a deadly fire or medical emergency? Measure K will not save us," Stearns said. "I will continue to work not only hard, but smart, to see that our revenue is spent wisely."

When Jonita "Joni" Elder, who would be a newcomer to the board, spoke, she said the fire board can no longer be run like a "social club" and that she has investigated the district's budget herself and found up to $80,000 that could be cut.

"That savings would have funded our firefighter's raises and benefits. When I'm on the board, I'll look for even more savings for our district," Elder said.

Later in the night, Yvonne Lewis, current chair of the fire board, said she "would like to see where $80,000 can be cut from the budget." She also said more than 15 pieces of property have been examined for potential firehouse locations and that it is important for the current board to continue its work.

"If Measure K passes, this will all stop and within three years the fire board will be back to where it was in 2009 looking at the same properties and going through the same steps that we have for the past few years," Lewis said. "A saying comes to mind ‘If you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you have always gotten.'"

Jimmie Jordan, another Newcastle resident running for the first time, said he did not plan on running for a spot on the fire board until he saw what he calls a "reactive" approach by the current board.

"The current board has failed to deliver on yesterday's promises and is still struggling to fulfill today's promises working on an unrealistic and unreasonable solution to solve the problems of a very divided populous," Jordan said.

David Poore, an incumbent running for reelection, drew on his experiences with the fire department when he fell 23 feet from his roof and received care.

"The California Building Code requires us to build a firehouse that in essence would be the last building standing if a disaster hits. It will not have to be a Taj Mahal building, but it must be able to last 30, 40, 50, 60 years," Poore said.

After the candidates spoke, they were asked questions from audience members, who filled out cards specifying their question and which candidate they would like to hear from. More than 100 cards were filled out.

The questions ranged from what candidates feel is an appropriately sized firehouse to whether or not Measure K will provide ample funding for the station.

The Newcastle Fire Protection District Board of Directors will meet Thursday night at 6:30 p.m. at Newcaslte Elementary School.

Contact Amber Marra at amberm@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @Amber_AJNews.