Calif. District Weighs Tax to Keep Full-time Department

Olivehurt officials say funding from a SAFER grant is running out and they can't afford to keep the firefighters.

June 15--Olivehurst voters in November may decide whether they want to continue around-the-clock fire protection or revert to reduced service levels in 2015.

Olivehurst Public Utility District directors this week will discuss placing a special tax on the ballot to raise funds for the district's Fire Department. The measure would ask voters to approve an annual $120-per-parcel special tax to raise $432,000.

The matter will be considered during the district board's Thursday's meeting at 7 p.m. in the district board room at 1970 Ninth Ave.

Director Dennise Burbank, who is on both the district's fire committee and an ad hoc committee looking at the tax, said Thursday she supports putting the measure to a vote.

"Personally, I don't want to see our Fire Department go back to part time," she said. "Hopefully, our community will agree."

At issue is whether the department returns to being a part-time operation once a federal grant that provides additional staffing runs out early next year. The $720,000 Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant approved in 2012 provides four full-time positions in the department.

It's the same SAFER grant program on which Marysville depends to maintain full-time three-per-shift staffing in its Fire Department until 2016.

The grant got the Olivehurst department back to a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week operation. Prior to that, service levels had dropped after voters rejected tying a special-benefit assessment levied on property owners for fire service to inflation.

District Fire Chief Wade Harrison could not be reached to discuss what a return to previous funding levels would mean. But previous to the grant, the department relied on mutual aid agreements and volunteers for response to after-hours fire and rescue calls.

To pass the special tax, the district would need support from a two-thirds majority of voters who receive district fire service. That's a percentage that district General Manager Tim Shaw admitted has been difficult to reach in other special tax elections in the state.

"If we don't get it, we go back to part time, unbenefited firefighters," Shaw said.

The department has one full-time chief, four full-time firefighter/EMTs paid for with the federal funding, 26 volunteers and four interns. The firefighter/EMT positions would be eliminated after the SAFER grant expires without additional funding.

While the district can apply for a new two-year grant, there is competition for the funding and no guarantee it would be approved.

The board also needs to balance the projected cost of holding the election -- which could be as much as $25,000 -- against the chances of getting the necessary two-thirds approval. The department has received $11,600 in donations from community organizations to help pay for the cost of the election, according to a staff report.

"It is up to the community to decide what level of staffing they want," Burbank said. "Two-thirds is the iffy part. I don't know what the voters are going to say."

CONTACT Eric Vodden at 749-4769.

Copyright 2014 - Appeal-Democrat, Marysville, Calif.