New fire tax question could land on North Auburn voters’ ballots

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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AUBURN CA - Placer County is moving forward with a possible June 5 vote in North Auburn and Ophir on raising $570,000 annually through higher taxes to maintain current fire protection levels. The tax initiative would offset declining revenues for North-Auburn-Ophir areas covered by the Placer County Fire Department and help avoid the possibility of higher fire-insurance rates for residents and businesses, county assistant director of emergency services Rui Cunha said. Cunha said that the additional $570,000 in fire funding would need approval from two-thirds of voters casting ballots. The individual cost estimates from the county for taxpayers should be calculated by late January. One option available to the county if voters reject the increase is to drop the number of firefighters on duty 24 hours a day from six to four, Cunha said. That option would save the district more than $510,000 annually, he said. Another option would be to reduce current staffing from six firefighters on fulltime duty to five. That would save about $220,000 in yearly operating costs, Cunha said, quoting a study supervisors requested in August. Both of the cuts in staffing would mean the department would be able to operate two engines instead of the current three. That would have an impact on response time and ability to quickly move resources to a fire, Cunha said. “And there would likely be insurance issues,” Cunha said. “There might be additional insurance payments because of lack of firefighting ability.” Placer Fire Chief Brad Harris said that any cuts in manpower that would accompany a rejection of the measure at the polls would further exacerbate the department’s current problems getting to fires and having the proper equipment to fight them. Placer County Fire is staffed by Cal Fire under a contract with the county. Harris is chief of Cal Fire’s Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit, as well as the county fire-system chief. The Atwood Road fire station responds to nearly 2,000 calls a year and the overall North Auburn-Ophir stations handle a total of 2,400 callouts, he said. But the study showed that the stations, with six firefighters on duty and three frontline engines ready to respond to emergencies, were not able to meet call needs 16 percent of the time. That meant other fire stations in the area were called for mutual aid. Harris said that the other districts are also being hard-pressed to keep their service levels up. Adding to North Auburn’s woes, it’s in need of $3 million for apparatus replacement – with eight of its 14 vehicles 21 years or older. Harris said the ladder truck – which normally is replaced after 20 years of service – is now 30 years old. Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery voted last Tuesday with other supervisors to move the targeted June 5 vote forward. But Montgomery said that her much larger concern is over how the county and its fire agency will be able to serve long-term growth – in light of a current service that is able to meet call needs 84 percent of the time. “If you don’t have the fire service to serve new growth, you need to take a long, hard look at long-term growth,” Montgomery said. Staff will return to the board Jan. 24 with details on how much each property owner will need to pay if the community wants to retain fire service levels where they are now.