The Kenwood Press
News: 08/15/2018

Glen Ellen Fire District puts parcel tax on November ballot

Alec Peters

When residents living within the boundaries of the Glen Ellen Fire Protection District (GEFPD) look at their Nov. 6 ballot, they’ll see something for the first time ever – a measure for a fire department parcel tax.

At a July 30 special meeting, the District’s board of directors voted 3-1 to place a parcel tax on the ballot. The measure will require two-thirds approval to pass.

If the measure is OK’d, each year the district could request that a tax of up to $200 be placed on residential and lodging parcels, up to $100 for agriculture and vacant parcels, and $0.05 to $0.09 per square foot for commercial, industrial and warehouse property.

In a written explanation of the rationale behind the request, the board cited, in part, the October fires causing a reduction in expected property taxes (an estimated decrease of $70,000 for next year).

Last year the GEFPD entered into a five-year contract with the Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority (SVFRA) to provide improvement in service and fire response times. Under the terms of the contract, cost to the GEFPD is 75 percent of the county tax funds it receives, with the remaining 25 percent of those tax funds staying within the GEFPD budget, supplemented by the fundraising efforts of the Glen Ellen Firefighters Association – monies that go to the upkeep and maintenance of equipment.

The terms of the contract were based on certain cost and revenue projections by the GEFPD, but the fires have impacted those projections.

In addition, when the contract with SVFRA is up four years from now, it is not known if there will be a new contract and if there is, what those financial terms will be.

“The Board of Directors believes that although additional revenue is not needed at this time, it may be advisable to make the request for additional funding now rather than wait until the potential problem becomes acute,” wrote the board in its statement.

GEFD board director Hal Weise, who voted for the measure to be put on the ballot, said there is also a fiscal wild card with the future of the Eldridge Fire Department, which has served the soon-to-be-closed Sonoma Developmental Center and sits within Glen Ellen. It’s possible that the GEFPD may have to absorb responsibility for fire coverage of the 800-plus acres of open space and structures, and there are questions as to how and who would pay for that.

Weise said he understands that people are tired of being “nickel and dimed” with taxes, but said he said that if needed, the parcel tax would help make sure the emergency service cost would be covered into the future.

Not all GEFPD directors voted to put the parcel tax on the ballot. Director Steve Perry voted no.

“I voted my conscience,” wrote Perry in an email. “In other words, I voted no because I believe a parcel tax is premature and not demonstrably necessary based on the District’s (my) projections. Potential uses for the monies have not been discussed and agreed upon by GEFPD’s Board as of now. It appeared to me that this was an attempt to not let a crisis go to waste.”

Each year before the imposition of the tax, the Board of Directors would hold a public hearing where the tax rate for parcels would be decided – for example, anywhere between $0-$200 for a residential parcel.

The GEFPD isn’t the only fire district asking voters to vote on additional taxes in November. The Valley of the Moon Fire Protection District (which operates as the SVFRA) is asking for a tax, as is Schell-Vista Fire Protection District, among others. A number of fire departments already have some kind of levy on their residents.

The move for independent fire districts seeking more funding comes at the same time as a countywide debate over how to make the county’s entire fire and emergency systems more effective and efficient. For the past few years, fire officials from throughout the county have been working on making recommendations to the Board of Supervisors. On Aug. 15, the board was scheduled to hear some of those ideas, one of which is half-cent countywide tax that could be on a ballot in 2019.