Tuesday, December 13, 2011

CSA 48 - County Fire Funding Around My Home

Today I attended a Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors Meeting. What fun. Not.

I did so to keep tabs on an issue near and dear to my heart... maintaining fire and EMS response service in my area during the non-fire season. I've mentioned that on Facebook and in a couple of other places, and people were curious, so I wrote up my thoughts on the meeting this evening and am posting them here.

I don't claim this is complete, correct, or consistent. It's the best I could do given the situation, the contents of the meeting, and my temperament. I hope it isn't entirely wrong, and I will try to correct it somehow if I find I am wrong about things.

With that disclaimer...

Board Of Supervisors Meeting - Partial Writeup - Dec 13, 2011
A somewhat inflammatory and editorialized document by Jeff Powell.
These are my impressions and opinions. Your mileage may vary.
Remember, though, that government is like making sausage, in a very big and slow factory.

8:15 am: park car in 3 hour free parking lot across the river from the county building.

In the meeting room I pick up a copy of the official agenda, which lists our item as #56. Seems like it will be forever before we discuss funding for County Fire, but that doesn't do justice to what really happened. In any case, for reference, here is what we were at the meeting to discuss, word-for-word from the agenda:

56. Consider report on the state budge and associated impacts on the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) and further discussion of County Fire Service Area 48 (CSA 48) service delivery options for changing the contracted level of service with CAL FIRE commencing in the fiscal year 2013-2014, and taking related actions.

All clear now? Hope so. But I have NO idea what that really means.

8:30 am: meeting begins.

A sea of red shirted citizens (numbering 50 or so) concerned about CSA 48 is present, but that doesn't matter yet. First we get some technical preliminaries followed by open comments from the public about things not on the agenda. During the preliminaries at least one agenda item related to PG&E smart meters was removed from the "consent agenda" (things that are just "accepted" but not commented upon by the board or the public as far as I can tell) and moved to the "regular agenda", which allows for comment by anyone that can fog a mirror when they exhale. Despite that, quite a few members of the public wanted to discuss smart meter related issues during the comment period allotted to things not on the agenda, and wasted a lot of time as a result. In addition concerns were raised about Occupy Santa Cruz and the county's recent moves towards it, and there were many requests for a moratorium on foreclosures in the county. Oh, and some comments about a program that helped people working for the county make better choices about food and lifestyle.

Then we had 15 minutes or so of thanking a retiring county employee.

Then the Board of Supervisors recessed to run a second meeting - one related Zone 5 of the Santa Cruz Flood and Water Conservation district to happen. No, really... they stopped one meeting and changed it to another one, just like that. The BOS members are also members of this new group along with a few others, but there wasn't much happening here. Done in 15 minutes.

10:30 am, give or take: morning break. During this time I go move my car since it is clear that 11:15 is going to come and go before we're done. I put it in the 2 hour lot in front of the county building. After all, we should be done by 12:30, right? (Hint: not.)

10:45 am-ish: They start up again and immediately recess for a different flood control meeting: this one about zone 7 instead of zone 5. This one was much more contentious and went on for nearly an hour. However, in the end, I think nothing of great import happened - everything they voted on passed unanimously - and the project they want to do (to improve flood control down near Watsonville) wasn't impeded or slowed down as far as I can tell.

Editorial comment: by this point there are quite a few people I think should never be allowed to speak in public, and I am pondering how to make choking some of those people to death legal. But I digress.

It is important to note, however, that for over 3 hours the group of people that had come to speak and hear about the County Fire issue is dwindling. People have - gasp! - lives and jobs and commitments. Three hours after the meeting started we hadn't gotten to our issue despite being told we'd be "first" by someone. Go figure.

Approximately 11:45 am now, and we finally get to the County Fire related issue. Surprisingly I have not gnawed off any of my own limbs in a desperate attempt to keep myself awake.

Chief Ferriera and someone else (didn't catch her name) made some initial comments about the situation. As far as I can remember these were the high points (for me) of the discussion that ensued:
  • County fire will run out of money sometime around the summer of 2013 - 18 months or so from now.
  • Funding for County Fire comes from two primary sources, both tied to home values: 1.x million per year from property taxes directly; 2.x million per year from CSA 48 tax that is also paid via the property tax bill. I don't have exact numbers, sadly.
  • The county has done polling and (surprise, surprise!) when they ask people something like "Are you willing to pay more for the fire service you already get?" the answer has only 60% of people saying yes, and we'd need 66% to pass a tax increase. Argh! I'm honestly surprised support is that high. Clearly a lot of education is needed, and not just of the voters. How about a poll question like: "The dedicated fund that pays for your County Fire service is running out of money and it will shut down completely during the off season in the fall of 2013 as a result. Would you support an increase in a dedicated tax or fee to keep it running instead of shutting down? And note that if you don't have fire service you probably can't sell your home and its value will be less than that of dog spit." Oddly I suspect that support would be a bit higher than just 60% if the question is phrased properly. I apologize if I have misrepresented the polling work, but in reality polling is just about as close to a black art as you are going to find, and the answers you get are inescapably related to the exact wording of the question you ask.
  • Governor Jerry Brown is looking to impose an additional fee on home owners in SRA (state responsibility area) land of $180 per year to make up other lost funding sources. There may be a $30 reduction in that fee for those who are covered by another fire protection district like CSA 48. That fee, however, would probably not come back to County Fire in any way to support their activities as far as I can tell. Many of those living in CSA 48 will wind up paying that fee to the state, making many wonder about the public's willingness to stomach a tax increase in addition to that fee.
  • There are a few ways to save some money other than shutting down county fire entirely. As with everything (except the agenda itself) I have nothing in writing, so I am doing my best from memory to remember these. They might move some people around from administrative jobs to fire fighting roles. They might offload the program to name driveways and renumber houses to some other department. They might shut down a single station. They might shut down all of County Fire. Remember, this is off-season only... during the summer the state picks up the tab for the entire thing. (Editorial comment: the program to name driveways and renumber houses is the least liked - and possibly most stupid - program in existence. Why it still gets any funding is beyond me entirely. It should have been killed years ago. Technically it should never have been started.)
  • During discussion Chief Ferriera says something about costs vs. income. This was off the cuff, and so I wouldn't hold his feet to the fire, but what he indicated was that costs (for personnel and so on) have gone up about 3% over the last 3 years, but home values have gone down substantially during that same period thanks to the economy and housing crisis, dropping revenues. (I can confirm that last from deep, personal, and costly experience.) That may explain some or all of the reason that CSA 48 funds haven't kept up with the expenses of County Fire, though I would like a real accounting of that, and I may ask John Leopold for that information separately. We'll need it to justify any tax or fee increase to homeowners eventually in any case.
  • There was no discussion of how (or if) the volunteer fire department would continue to operate with Cal Fire shut down.
Then the public was then allowed to speak. I think those that were still left present, alive, and in possession of their full faculties made comments were reasonable and on point, suggesting to the supervisors that shutting down County Fire during the off season was not something we wanted to see. (I, personally, expressed the hope that we could actually improve our situation and get 4 fire fighters back on each engine in the off season, not just 3. Then I fled to purchase a parking pass to avoid a ticket and returned to the meeting only when that was done.) On my return I heard one nearly incoherent comment about not building cell phone antennas on top of fire stations, but I don't think that person was with "us" per-se. The last comment was from Alex Leman. He thanked those of us that were still there - and those that had arrived earlier but had to leave - and indicated that we all knew there was a long road ahead. He also provided an order on some of the proposed cost saving measures from the FDAC (Fire Department Advisory Committee?).

With the public comments ended the supervisors made more comments themselves. John Leopold thanked us for showing up en-mass and indicated he would help champion the cause. Supervisor Pirie took pains to point out where the public comments were wrong or misleading in various ways, but she did also ask someone else (name unknown to me) to discuss where county funds come from and go to. That was interesting, at least to me. Summarizing that and a few other things that were said leads to this:
  • Proposition 13 froze property tax revenues where they were when it was passed. So Santa Cruz County gets $0.13 per dollar of property taxes collected put into its general fund. Santa Clara county, by contrast, gets over $0.60 per dollar collected put into its general fund. This sort of inequity has never been addressed, and years later is causing all kinds of pain.
  • Of the $400 million or so dollars that Santa Cruz County spends per year, something like 90% comes with strings, requiring it to be spent in certain ways. Thus the supervisors are left with 10% or less that they supposedly control.
  • Of that 10%, though, there are all kinds of mandated spending that has to happen, which means there is substantially less flexibility in how they can spend money in general.
  • In short, there isn't enough money in the general fund - or anywhere else the county supervisors can get at - to "fix" this funding problem for County Fire. We have to pay for this ourselves, somehow, and to do that we're going to have to pass a tax measure of some sort in the next 18 months.
Then we came the actual voting. On the original agenda item. That blob of text up top that didn't mean anything I could understand.

With one change - asking Chief Ferriera and/or others to tell the state folks that the County of Santa Cruz needs some of that $150/$180 annual fee back somehow, or at least mention the possibility - the supervisors voted "aye" on the agenda item.

I honestly don't know what that means. As I say, the agenda item almost isn't actually written in English, and I am not at all sure what was accomplished today in any formal sense.

Less formally, though, I think the supervisors saw a lot of people from the Loma Prieta area show up on their door step and say "this sucks". How (or if) that will translate into fixes and plans over the longer term I don't know. We will, however, have to do this again and again and again. We'll have to continue to show up at these meetings and telling them that shutting County Fire down during the off season is not an option.

We will also have to campaign for whatever tax or fee finally comes out of this. We'll have to lobby our friends and neighbors over this issue, trying to get 66% of those that live in the CSA 48 area to vote yes and pay a small tax instead of paying huge fire insurance premiums and finding our houses worth next to nothing.

I hope you're all ready for more work. It's coming, whether you want it to or not.