The Idyllwild Fire Protection District’s commissioners discussed the means to convince two-thirds of the district’s voters to raise the parcel, or unit fee, last Thursday night.
Resolution 237, approved in May 1981, established a fee for fire-suppression services. The fee was based on the size of the parcel. For example, a 3,000-square-foot lot was defined as one unit. A parcel between 7,000 and 12,000 square feet was assigned two units. Parcels larger than 38,000 square feet were assigned four units and unimproved lots were a half unit.
The initial fee was $32.50 per parcel and has varied from $35 to $60 per parcel between 1991 and 2004. The maximum rate of $65 was adopted in 2006.
Twice since then, the district has asked its voters for support to increase the fee; but this requires that two-thirds of the voters in that election must cast a “Yes” ballot. In 2011, 60 percent voted “No.” Five years later, in 2016, a majority voted “Yes,” but they represented only 56.7 percent of the ballots.
Now, two years later, a commission subcommittee of Henry Sawicki and Larry Donahoo has raised the question of making a third attempt to gain voter support for a higher parcel fee.
“How do we get across to the public that it’s necessary?” asked Commissioner Ralph Hoetger. He opined that the department’s connection with the community has lessened over his time as resident. While other commissioners did not fully agree, they were willing to examine how to improve this.
Chris Fogle, an Idyllwild resident, suggested this might be attributable to regular turnover of the population. “Every 10 years, we need to re-acquaint people to the mountain and fire danger.”
While no specific decision about this issue was on the commission’s agenda Thursday night, all had ideas about what steps or actions would help achieve the 66.6-percent majority.
Among the subcommittee’s recommendations were revised handout materials, a more current website, departmental presence at regularly scheduled civic meetings and enlisting more citizen participation in the process leading up to the election.
“The cornerstone to this campaign is publicity and honest communication with residents who will be casting their ballots,” Sawicki wrote in the report to the full commission.
Sawicki and Donahoo thought it would take at least a year to prepare for a ballot measure. They are not rushing to get it on the November 2018 ballot.
But Sawicki also cautioned that this year, the local citizenry has become jaundiced about raising fees or rates for public agencies. All three local water districts — Fern Valley, Idyllwild and Pine Cove — and the county’s Waste Resource Department have or are seeking to increase their charges.
Some questioned whether the commission’s and staff’s efforts to manage the budget resources could be counterproductive on the vote. Currently, the department has several hundred thousand dollars in the bank, but no reserves for unanticipated emergencies. Would some voters believe this was a reason to reject higher fees, asked one commissioner.
IFPD bills about $1.6 million annually for emergency medical services, but collects about a quarter of this. Reasons vary, from limits imposed by Medicare, Medi-cal and service to low-income customers, according to Battalion Chief Mark LaMont.
He added, “If we could capture the $1.6 million, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”
President Rhonda Andrewson also felt that the State Fire Protection Fee, which has recently been suspended, caused confusion for the public. “People assumed we were getting the SRA fee. They didn’t know.”
Finance committee member Calvin Gogerty also recommended getting more information about why people opposed the last measure.
“Larry and I will drill down and get more specific ideas for the next meeting,” Sawicki said. “What kind of information should be put out and how do we do it?”