On Wednesday, Sept. 28, the Idyllwild Fire Commission held two public meetings to explain the purpose of Measure W and to answer questions about it.
Measure W was approved at IFPD’s July 26 meeting. The commissioners unanimously passed a resolution to double the current $65 per parcel or unit fee to $130.
Because the current fee is based on the number of units on each parcel, it is not strictly a parcel fee. For undeveloped lots, the fee will go from $32.50 to $130. For some parcels with large structures, the fee may actually fall.
The measure is on the Nov. 8 ballot and requires two-thirds of voters to approve. The commission is offering these sessions (two more meetings will be Oct. 5) to educate the public about the measure and its purpose.
“That’s a tough standard — two votes for every ‘no,’” said Commission President Jerry Buchanan. “School districts have a 55-percent standard.”
The first meeting was mid-morning on Sept. 28. About a dozen people came to hear the presentation and ask questions.
Buchanan began with the history of the district, the current organization, and then the purpose and role of Measure W.
The current fee raises about $212,000 annually. If voters approve Measure W, it will bring in about another $240,000 or $450,000 total, the department has estimated.
The first point Buchanan made was that the current $65 fee, which was authorized in 1981, has fluctuated up and down over these three decades. It has been at $65 for the last 10 years.
Secondly, the new fee, if approved, will have an escalator tied to an economic index so that the fee increases over time.
He also stressed that the fee is not the major revenue source for the district. Property taxes are the largest piece of revenue and fees for medical service and ambulance transport are another third of revenue.
The parcel revenue is for to two principal purposes. The implementation of a capital improvement plan, which the commission adopted this year, and creating reserves for the future. Twenty percent of the annual revenue will be set aside for reserves, the second major purpose.
Some of the questions posed at the first Wednesday meeting:
Why did you wait so long since 1981 to raise the fee?
Fire Chief Patrick Reitz said that, while the 1981 limit was $65, that fee amount was not approved until 1993 and was lowered for several years. The fee has remained at $65 since 2006, he added.
He also reminded the audience that Measure G, an effort to raise the unit fee in 2010, failed.
“I was hired in 2012 and told we need a tax measure yesterday!” Reitz stated and pointed out that much of the current remodeling of the fire station was accomplished with donations.
Reitz emphasized that IFPD is aware of the public taxpayer revenue. Consequently, he looks for savings wherever possible. For example, the two new ambulances, which have required maintenance, were purchased used and the total investment including maintenance is less than the cost of a new ambulance.
“We’re coming to the community for Measure W to help the district,” he said. “The Capital Improvement Program is woefully overdue and to address other issues.”
What does it mean, “the transition in your finances?”
IFPD purchased a new accounting software program for use in the current fiscal year, which started July 1, and the future. It has taken the financial consultant longer to adjust than expected, but Buchanan stated, “The accountant has promised full program implementation in October.”
Do other fire departments use similar programs?
The county fire department relies on property tax revenue just as most special districts, such as IFPD. State fire department funding comes from state revenues and a Fire Protection Fee, enacted in 2012, of about $135 per parcel in State Responsibility Areas, such as the Hill.
Why is there an ambulance charge for the service in addition to the tax?
“The fee helps us staff with paramedics and have an ambulance ready,” said Reitz. “You don’t pay enough taxes for 600 to 700 transports annually.” Ambulance revenue has risen about $50,000 to $500,000 annually, he stated.
The district’s budget is about $2 million. Slightly more than half is derived from property taxes, $300,000 from reimbursement for campaign fires or mutual aid, and the balance is the medical charges, including transportation to hospitals.
Reitz added that these charges are often reduced by Medicare, Medi-Cal and insurers. So the district does not re-coup its full costs. “We can’t afford to do it for free. Some districts do but it takes a lot of money.”
If you don’t get the increase, what does it mean?
The CIP projects replacing the ladder truck, and a new pumper engine, among several projects, would be delayed or dropped, Reitz responded. The proposed fee increase will fully fund the CIP, Reitz assured the public.
Just as importantly, 20 percent of the fee revenue will be set aside in a reserve for future budget needs.
Finally, Reitz said some of the funds will go toward maintaining a salary level that represents market wages. He argued, “We’re 40 percent below scale.”
While some staff have left since he arrived, only one went to another fire agency for a higher salary, he admitted. “We have very low turnover in the department. Our people come and stay. We have a good place to work and attract talent,” he finished.
Is the parcel rate different for residential versus commercial parcels?
“No,” replied Buchanan.
“Everybody pays equally. The fire department is there every day whether you own a house, vacant lot or business,” Reitz added.