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Kenwood fire tax sails through small voter turnout

Kenwood fire tax sails through small voter turnout
Kenwood firehouse.Photo by Jay Gamel

By Jay Gamel

“We are so happy and thankful for the huge support of the community,” Kenwood Fire Chief Daren Bellach said, responding to the passage of a hefty new fire assessment. “Passing at almost 84 percent shows huge support and we appreciate it greatly.”

While voter turnout was low throughout Sonoma County, only 88 people out of the 461 who cast a ballot for Kenwood Fire District’s Measure E voted against it.

According to figures released by the county Registrar of Voters, just over 38 percent of all the people registered to vote for the few issues on the Nov. 2 ballot participated. Kenwood, however, had a 46 percent turnout, according to the latest figures from County Clerk-Recorder-Assessor-Registrar of Voters Deva Marie Proto.

“Odd-year and special election turnouts tend to be between 20 and 50 percent, although we have had a couple that hit the 60-percent range,” she said about voter turnouts.

Measure E’s supporters constitute a whopping 84 percent of the vote, not usual for tax measures, especially one making up for years of neglect — Measure E ushers in the first change in Kenwood’s fire assessment in over 30 years.

Beginning next year, residential and commercial properties will see their fire assessment jump from $40 per home to a figure based on $0.12 per square foot for legal buildings on the property. A 1,200-square-foot home will be assessed $144.

Agricultural properties will be assessed at $16 an acre, though they constitute a small part of the overall revenue. Residential home revenue is, by far, the major source of assessment dollars.

The new tax is expected to net about $300,000, as opposed to the $40,000 annual yield of the current $40 assessment. In spite of hefty recent raises, Kenwood firefighters remain among the lowest paid in the county, making it difficult to recruit and keep trained people. The extra revenue will go a long way toward providing salary parity with the rest of the county.

The new assessment rates were tailored to meet real budget issues. They include an annual cost-of-living increase, which the prior assessment lacked. And the new rates are ceilings; they are not necessarily what will be imposed every year. The rates to be billed every year are decided by the fire district’s board of directors, five elected Kenwood residents who oversee district policy.

“What this does is enable us to have a vision when we do budgeting and planning,” director Daymon Doss said. “Without this increase, we would be backfilling and trying to figure out ways to keep the deficit from overwhelming us. Now we look to the future with the support of the community, and know the tax meets our basic needs and salary structure for employees.”

Doss expressly thanked friends of the fire district for getting out the word and putting up the signs reminding people to vote.

The 2021-2022 fiscal year (FY) budget is projected to be short $300,000 given the existing revenue. The new tax will appear on the 2022-2023 FY property tax bills. Discussions with the county are underway that could produce a substantial boost to this budget, and even going forward. Details should be finalized next month.

The county has yet to decide on a second effort to pass a significant sales tax measure to shore up firefighting for all Sonoma County fire departments. 2020’s Measure G would have provided over $50 million a year, but failed by a very slim margin.

The Kenwood Fire Protection District has a long history of conservative budgeting and expenditures, but rapid escalation of costs and overhead has made large inroads into the district’s healthy reserves over the past four years.

Record-shattering wildfires, drought, and the increased emergency service demands of 4,000 residents scattered over 40 square miles of rugged mountain terrain surrounding populated areas are stressing the fire department’s resources. The original volunteer fire company was formed when neighbors knew each other and were on call all day. High school kids could be drafted to fight big fires, and traffic was a tenth of what it is now.

Today’s firefighters and emergency responders are highly trained and continue training throughout their careers. They are also paid, even if only on a per call or per incident basis.

The election may not be officially certified until Dec. 8, but likely much sooner, according to Proto.

No one submitted arguments against Measure E. Fire Chief Bellach, retired district attorney J. Michael Mullins, Kenwood business owners Steve Marshall and Joseph Hansen, along with Steve Ledson, a winery and vineyard owner, all supported the measure.

“The result of the Measure E vote is a sign of the key role the fire department plays in the Kenwood community,” new Kenwood Fire District director Jack Atkin said.