A quarter-cent sales tax measure aimed at supporting fire protection and prevention will face electors after the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to place it on the November ballot. The measure provoked controversy over both its language and its inclusion for this election cycle.
A sales tax to aid county libraries is also on the ballot, something opponents of the fire sales tax pointed to as a reason not to move forward with a second tax, fearing that running two tax measures might ensure the downfall of both. Both measures would replace sunsetting Measure B and library taxes, resulting in no overall sales tax change.
If passed, 90% of the funds from the new fire sales tax will go toward funding the various fire agencies in Mendocino County. Of that 90%, 40% (or 36% of the total tax revenue) will be split evenly among the fire departments. The remaining 60% (54% of the total tax revenue) will be allocated to agencies based on the relative population those agencies serve.
The remaining 10% of the revenue will be used to plan, finance, and operate ongoing county-wide fire prevention programs including community chipping services, defensible space assistance, and home hardening assistance.
The measure passed the board unanimously, and with support from fire chiefs across the county.
“We’re eager to support this tax measure and resolution,” said Mendocino Volunteer Fire Department Chief Dave Latoof during the Tuesday meeting.
But the fire tax measure has faced an uphill battle since it was first proposed at the May 17 supervisors meeting.
2nd District Supervisor Maureen Mulheren introduced it as a three-eighths-of-a-cent sales tax to provide funding for fire prevention and water retention. But 4th District Supervisor Dan Gjerde consistently opposed the combination of fire and water projects in one tax and also urged the supervisors to decrease it to a quarter-cent sales tax.
The board moved forward with a quarter-cent tax for fire prevention only during its June 22 meeting, with an agreement that supervisors would address ongoing water issues with existing county funds.
During discussion Tuesday, Gjerde urged the board to use 10% of the fire sales tax to improve emergency medical services in under-served rural areas rather than allocating funds by population to each fire district, as is written in the proposal. He argued that towns with larger populations, which would get a majority of those funds, may hinder the development of EMS in smaller districts that may not have adequate ambulance services.
Gjerde referred to Ukiah as a “profit center” — it is the largest town in the county and as such would likely receive the most funds from the tax — and alleged the town may not share its EMS with rural areas that won’t get as much money from the tax.
BOS Chair Ted Williams and Mulheren argued that the funds would support all fire districts, and the board should focus on allotting the quarter-cent sales tax revenue to just fire right now rather than trying to tackle EMS.
“[This measure] will definitely bolster fire, especially rural fire where every penny really counts, where you have call volumes doubling in some areas over 15 years and fewer people available to volunteer just due to communities aging out,” Williams said during the Tuesday meeting. “But we’re still going to see challenges and the tax revenue that can be raised on a quarter-cent won’t solve the ambulance problem countywide.”
Ukiah Valley Fire District Chief Douglas Hutchison refuted Gjerde’s claim that Ukiah may withhold funds and services from rural areas who rely on Ukiah for EMS.
“I have to say I’m a little offended. UVFA has always supported both this tax and the ambulance [joint powers authority] and the ability to share the profit center, if you want to call it that, that Ukiah is,” Hutchison said. “We’ve always stood with our rural partners.”
Anderson Valley Fire Department Chief Andres Avila urged the board to move forward with the tax as written, arguing that including EMS would “muddy the waters.”
Ultimately the board moved forward with the initial plan for a sales tax for fire prevention. The board will hear a final reading of the language and the proposed ballot language at its July 26 meeting.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that the fire tax would increase the overall county sales tax. Should voters pass the proposed library and fire taxes, there would be no change at the cash register.