The Kenwood Press
News: 08/01/2020

Kenwood Fire District ballot measure – confusing but necessary

November measure will adjust spending limit on existing taxes, not raise new ones

Jay Gamel

Kenwood Fire District voters will be asked to approve an adjustment to the district’s tax spending limit set by state constitutional amendments. The ballot language can be confusing, but the adjustment is required to keep the district’s budget in line with the law, according to the Fire Chief Daren Bellach. After hearing what was needed, at their monthly meeting at the Kenwood Firehouse on July 1, all five directors agreed to place the measure on the November ballot.

The meeting was only the second in-person meeting held there since March 17, when businesses and most organizations were closed to slow down the spread of the Coronavirus. Four members of the board, the fire chief, and three audience members showed up and were socially distanced throughout the firehouse public room, with Director August Moretti attending via phone.

At their June meeting, the directors unanimously agreed to NOT ask voters to raise the district’s long-standing $40 yearly benefit assessment to match Glen Ellen fire district’s $200 a year parcel tax, in part because of dire financial stresses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even at $200 per parcel, however, benefit assessment money would still be a small part of Kenwood’s $1.4 annual budget. Most of that money comes from property taxes, ranging from $800,000 to $830,000 over the last two fiscal years. Prop 13 determines the exact portion of property taxes due any given district, and the amount is figured by a complicated formula involving new construction, per capita personal income, population changes and annual cost of living indexes. Prop 4 determines how much a district can spend. In other words, it’s designed to make sure districts don’t take more in property taxes than they need. There are allowances made for disasters and windfalls, but Kenwood has run out of reasons not to get a new Prop 4 appropriation passed this year.

Kenwood has been putting about $250,000 a year in excess tax revenue into its Capital Fund for the past two years, Bellach said. That fund currently holds $2.4 million and returned $7,000 in interest over the 2019-2020 fiscal year.

“We’ve been going over (our Prop. 4 limit) for the last five years,” Bellach said. “But we felt we qualified for the exclusions, plus the local emergencies provided us more money than expected.”

The district also had qualified capital outlays, purchasing a new fire engine and having work done on the firehouse, mostly to meet Federal mandates, also exempted under the Prop. 4 rules.

For now, the district will not be hiring any more full time firefighters, another reason to raise the spending limits now, Bellach added. Going forward, new firefighters will have to be paid through the operating budget.

The spending limits were imposed by Proposition 4 in 1979, and are frequently referred to as the Gann Limits after the proposition’s author, tax activist Paul Gann, also a co-sponsor of 1977’s Prop 13.

As a spending cap limit, the district’s proposed appropriation spending limit ordinance will require a simple majority vote to pass.

A last-minute concern about wording of the ballot measure prompted the KFD board to call a special meeting for Thursday, July 30, at 4 p.m. to vote on changes intended to make the purpose of the ballot measure more clear.

Below is the language expected to appear on the ballot:

“Shall the Kenwood Fire Protection District adopt Ordinance No. 20/21-01 ratifying its limits on appropriations to assure continued fire, rescue and emergency medical services?” You will be asked to vote yes or no on that statement.

The language of the underlying ordinance is more complicated. It reads in principal part:

“It is the purpose and intent of this ordinance to ratify the appropriations limit of the District for the provision of fire and emergency services. Such increase shall be applicable for a period of four years. The revenues appropriated pursuant to this ratification are to be used solely for the purposes of obtaining, furnishing, operating and maintaining fire suppression equipment and apparatus, and for other necessary fire and life safety services and expenses of the District.”

The legal meaning is that “ratification” applies to the existing “appropriations limit” – it does not increase the underlying tax or create a new tax. It sets the limit as to how much of the district’s tax revenue may be spent over the next four years.

Prop. 4 initially limited the rate of growth for appropriations made by the state and individual local governments. The limit in the rate of growth is the percentage increase in the cost of living and the percentage increase in the state or local government’s population. It also required state and local governments to return any funds to taxpayers in excess of the amount appropriated for a given fiscal year, and required the state to reimburse local governments for the cost of complying with state mandates.

The district is asking for the maximum extension of four years before it has to be reauthorized, “just to be safe,” Bellach said.

Scary fire season ahead

Chief Bellach’s monthly report to the board noted the impact COVID-19 was having on the state and county prison systems, mainly with the work crews that were drafted to work in the last two major wildfires.

“We’ve lost all but three of the prison crews in the county,” Bellach said after a board member raised the question of having enough people left in town to cope with emergencies if help is sent to cope with other fires throughout the state. Mutual aid is big part of the state fire fighting system.

While the district isn’t required to send equipment and firefighters long distances to join firefighting efforts all over California and even into Nevada and Oregon, it has always stepped up when called upon, Bellach noted.

“We are obligated under state law to go to the assistance of the surrounding counties,” Bellach said, “and we’d never want to be in a place where they wouldn’t come to us if we needed the help.”