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Voters mum on Higgins fire tax proposal

Fire board says educating is the next step
By: Andrew Westrope, Staff Writer
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Voters have been silent on Higgins Fire Protection District’s new tax proposal so far, but officials are taking steps to educate the public about what’s at stake in the May 7 mail-in ballot election.

The Nevada County Clerk had received no written arguments for or against “Measure O” before Wednesday’s board meeting, and none of the attendants had a comment on the matter. In the absence of a need for public debate, district officials say they are putting together a plan to educate citizens about why they’re seeking a tax proposal less than a year after the last one failed.

If passed, Measure O would temporarily replace the current $25-per-structure tax on residential property with a $125 tax for the next 10 years. Additionally, commercial buildings would have to pay $40 per 1,000 square feet and industrial buildings $45 per 1,000 square feet. This would be effective for 10 years, starting with the 2013-2014 fiscal year and ending with the 2022-2023 fiscal year, at which time the previous rate would be reinstated.

Proponents of the measure say the current tax rate has been in place since 1980 and is no longer sufficient to fund fire services for the district’s 12,000 residents, but voters turned down a similar proposal in June 2012 by a margin of 150 ballots.

Fire Chief Jerry Good said the authors of the new proposal tweaked last year’s to make it more palatable, including a 10-year cap and removing a provision to raise the tax according to cost of living.

Board President John Boykin hopes higher awareness will help change the outcome this time around. He said the district barely gets by with the help of 25 volunteers and only four firefighters on duty to cover 90 square miles, which, in his 30 years of experience as a fire chief in Hayward, is “very inadequate.”

“We feel we didn’t quite educate good enough to really let people know what we were trying to accomplish,” he said. “We’re going to manage whatever level (of service) they want, but we think we would be remiss if we didn’t at least let them know what the results are.”

The failure of Measure M last year forced the district to lay off six equivalent full-time positions and resort to keeping only two of its three stations open at a time. Good said the district recently failed to secure a highly-competitive SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant, and services could take another hit if Measure O fails.

“If it doesn’t pass, we’re still having to deal with a revenue source that is highly (erratic), and we could see more cuts if the economy doesn’t get better,” he said.

The station’s auxiliary group is currently putting the finishing touches on a five-minute educational video to be posted on the fire district’s website, and Good said written information will be mailed to constituents later this spring, weeks ahead of the election.

According to Boykin, the board opted for a mail election this time to avoid a scenario where voters go to the polls with other ballot issues in mind and automatically vote “no” on any tax increases.

“Looking at other districts, if it’s a specific ballot where that’s all that’s being talked about, then people will focus on that,” he said. “When they receive the information, they’ll read it and they’ll have better information and a better focus on it.”

Good said anyone with questions about the election is welcome to visit www.higginsfire.org or email him at chiefjerrygood@higginsfire.org.