Newcastle residents prepare to pay for Measure B, board prepares budget

Some feel tax is unfair
By: Amber Marra, Journal Staff Writer
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As Newcastle residents prepare to pay their first installment of property taxes increased by Measure B, the fire protection district's Board of Directors is finalizing its budget.

Esther Richie, 84, owns 30 acres on five parcels in Newcastle. Each one of those parcels is subject to the Measure B tax, which charges landowners $146.46 based on the square footage of a property owner's structures. It can increase up to 3 percent each year and the funds are to be used to pay for a new Newcastle firehouse and wages and benefits for the firefighters.

Richie said she has lived in Newcastle since 1964. Last year she said she paid around $256 for her property taxes and now she will pay around $988.

Richie's husband, Fred, passed away, but she said he was "a workaholic," so there is money to pay her property taxes, but she still doesn't think Measure B is fair, partially because it was passed under the guise that the firehouse was condemned.

"We worked all our lives paying for this property and now we're paying through the nose for it," Richie said.

She added that she will be voting for Measure K during the November election. Measure K would reform Measure B in that it keeps the $146.46 parcel tax for three years, but caps it after that at $30.

"It gives them some money to build or improve the fire station, yet it will lower the taxes where it won't cost as much after the three years," she said.

But that's not how Joanne Neft feels, who lives in Auburn, but owns four parcels of commercial property in Newcastle.

Since Neft lives in Auburn, she was not able to vote on Measure B last March and she won't be able to vote against Measure K this November, though that is what she said she would do if she could vote because she does not believe Measure K will provide enough funds for a new firehouse or wage increases for firefighters.

"I wasn't able to vote for Measure B, but I was thrilled that it passed. I guess you could call that taxation without representation, but I own these buildings and they need to be protected," Neft said. "I can't vote for it and here I am in support of it."

Neft said in 25 years of ownership she has paid less than $170 annually for fire protection taxes on her properties. This year, she said she will pay more than 25 times that.

Neft's property tax bills from the Placer County Treasurer's Office indicate she will pay $4,072 in Measure B taxes this year on top of the $158 Measure F tax already in place. Property taxes can be paid in two installments. Measure F was passed in 1997 and imposes a $74.18 parcel tax, with a 2 percent cost of living increase every year.

"I have owned property for 25 years and over that period of time my fire service has been basically free," Neft said. "You know, I think that is unconscionable."

Firefighters on the move

Meanwhile, the Newcastle Fire Protection District Board of Directors held an emergency meeting on Thursday to discuss the future of the 90-year-old firehouse.

Yvonne Lewis, chairwoman of the fire board, said Friday that no decisions were made in regard to where the firefighters would be moved at Thursday's meeting.

"Board members are looking into that as we speak," Lewis said on Friday.

Bob Stearns, vice chairman of the fire board, said on Friday that the firefighters would be moved as soon as Monday to either Harvest Ridge Charter School or Sierra Safety Offices on Taylor Road, but did not provide a location immediately.

Lewis and other board members met with Placer County building officials last week to discuss the potential for a "yellow tag" on the firehouse, which would only allow firefighters to access equipment once and then not be permitted back in. That meeting followed a walkthrough of the building by a structural engineer.

Lewis said no decision was reached by board members on Thursday regarding a feasibility study on a piece of land listed as owned by R & S Properties on the meeting agenda.

"We will be moving (the firefighters) out. It has been continued until a meeting on Monday at 6:30 p.m.," Lewis said.

Patrice Metz, clerk to the fire board, said on Friday the meeting would be held in the Newcastle Elementary School staff room.

Budget questioned as board works to finalize

While property owners like Neft and Richie prepare to pay the Measure B tax for the first time and fire board members figure out a temporary home for their firefighters, next year's budget hangs in limbo.

Metz said all funds received from Measure B have to be tracked under a separate account within the 2012-2013 budget. Until specific numbers are received regarding those funds, the budget cannot be finalized.

Metz said the way the Measure B funds are spent will be monitored by the Measure B Oversight Committee.

"We are verifying how we spend the money, like we said we would. You're guestimating, we don't know what everything is going to be from Measure B," Lewis said. "We also didn't have all of the information on the salary increases, benefits and everything else."

Only one application from the public was received for the Measure B Oversight Committee, according to Joe Irvin, project liaison for the fire protection district. The deadline to turn in an application was Friday.

Lewis said the 2011-2012 budget for the district was $361,028.

Some members of the Reform Measure B Group in Newcastle have questioned several items within the 2011 budget, which totaled $362,337, according to a copy of the budget for that year.

In 2011, $33,077 are listed under "Miscellaneous Expenses." Lewis said $25,949 of that amount comes from a payment made on a fire truck that should have been listed under "Mitigation Funds."

That was later adjusted within the budget, Lewis said.

Under the 2012 budget, she said $13,000 were spent in miscellaneous funds, which can include anything from communications equipment for a Suburban owned by the fire department to mapping software for the fire trucks and toilet paper.

Another category titled "Other Supplies" shows $10,255 in expenditures, including medical oxygen, replacement pagers and laundry soap.

Under "Special Department Expenses," totaling $4,379 in 2011, Lewis said truck repairs are listed for when a deer was struck along with insurance reimbursement.

This year, the Placer County Auditor's Office will conduct an audit of the Newcastle Fire Protection District's budget. Andy Sisk, auditor controller for Placer County, said the county's involvement with the audit process of the 2011-2012 budget was a fire board decision.

"It's good practice from time to time to change auditors, though it's not required," Sisk said.

He added that the audit process will start in November or December and that it should be done by early 2013.

"I know members of the public are really wanting a fresh look at their books," Sisk said. "The only thing we can do is help with their annual financial audit."

Contact Amber Marra at Follow her on Twitter @Amber_AJNews.