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Fire district taking tax plea to voters

Proponents say money needed for new station, salaries in?Newcastle
By: Lien Hoang Journal correspondent
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Newcastle firefighters spend their days in a condemned, 89-year-old building that has never been renovated. Earning less than $10 an hour, the men then move, for safety reasons, to an adjacent trailer to serve out their night shifts. On Feb. 6, voters in that town will be asked to OK a new parcel tax of roughly $150 annually. A no vote could mean further decline of the Newcastle Fire Protection District or losing it altogether. “They’re on borrowed time,” Joe Irvin said of the emergency responders. “We’re at the 10-minute warning point, and if we don’t succeed, then game over.” Stark language, but the Newcastle Area Business Association president said he is not hearing any other options. Irvin has been helping promote Measure B, a mail-only ballot seeking to raise $300,000 a year, to be divided among a new fire station (40 percent), benefits and higher salaries for the firefighters (40 percent), and ongoing expenses and repairs (20 percent). This is not a popular time to ask for tax hikes, seen around the country as a barrier to economic recovery. But neglecting emergency responders is never palatable either, so Measure B supporters hope to succeed where lawmakers at the state and national levels have failed. On their Web site, the Friends of the Newcastle Fire Protection District paint an ominous future without the funding: longer fire response times if Newcastle must depend on outside districts; no guarantee of an emergency medical response; and insurance rates higher than the parcel tax. In a letter backing Measure B, directors of the business association write that they “are not fans of tax increases.” But, the letter continues, “we also understand the dire circumstances facing our community at this time in the way of fire protection services.” Cesare Di Lorenzo, who owns La Fornaretta Restaurant in Newcastle, was wary that questions remain about the parcel tax. How long would residents pay it? What are the details of the building it would finance? When would construction begin? “I believe the people in charge, they should be more specific,” he said. “They should have a project, an idea. I’m happy to pay taxes, but we need to know more.” A new fire station is estimated to cost $1.5 million to $2.5 million, and Irvin said a property owner on Indian Hill Road offered to lease a site for $100 a month. Measure B allows the parcel tax to increase by up to 3 percent per year. It does not expire, but can be repealed by voters or the fire district’s board of directors. The fiscal problems underlying the fire district’s shabby state have been decades in the making. What began as a squad of volunteer firefighters in the 1860s evolved into a professionally-trained staff to meet modern, 24-hour demand by the end of the 20th century. The constraints of California’s landmark Prop. 13, which capped property tax increases, made it increasingly difficult to secure revenues for the growing costs of emergency services. “The result is, we do enjoy a level of service we’re not paying for right now,” said Michael Leydon, Measure B’s volunteer campaign director. Election ballots for the measure, which requires two-thirds approval to take effect, circulate for one month and are due March 6. Proponents invite residents to visit their site, Friendsnfpd.org, or headquarters at 661-B Newcastle Road. Voters in North Auburn and Ophir will consider a similar tax initiative June 5.