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News: 04/15/2020

Fire District aiming new parcel tax proposal for November election

New rates, if approved, would go into effect in the 2021-22 fiscal year.

Kenwood Fire training


Time is growing short for the Kenwood Fire District (KFD) to increase parcel tax revenues for 2021-22. The district's directors decided on March 31 that they didn't have enough time to work up a new parcel tax proposal and place it on the ballot of a May Special Election. If they had been able to do that, an increase could have been made with 2020-21 fiscal year property tax assessments now underway.

They felt rushing into the May deadline was not sensitive to the quarantine situation and wasn't the right thing to do.

The March and April meetings discussed here were both held by telephone. California has made provisions for special districts like the KFD to waive certain Brown Act rules and hold virtual meetings, both special and regular, during the Coronavirus crisis.

At April 14th's audio-only regular board meeting, all five directors agreed to begin working on placing a parcel tax boost on the November General Election ballot, though there are questions about the exact assessments to made and how they are apportioned among commercial, agricultural, and other non-residential lands and buildings.

The existing parcel tax assessment of $40 per residential parcel and $100 per commercial parcel was formally approved for the 2020-21 fiscal year.

County election rules give the District until Aug. 8 to be certified for the November ballot. Meeting that deadline will require hiring a consultant, gathering more property information, deciding exactly what they want, getting it written and making sure it is legally correct, and holding at least two public meetings before a final measure can be adopted and submitted to the county on time.

The new rates being considered are based on Glen Ellen Fire Department's (GEFD) existing structure: a maximum of $200 per parcel for residential and lodging properties; $100 per parcel for agricultural and vacant land; and $0.10 per square foot for commercial, industrial and warehouse property (which includes winery buildings). There could be an optional Cost of Living increase allowed once the maximum rate is reached.

Kenwood Fire Chief Daren Bellach is already is looking at some preliminary data provided by the county assessor's office, though he cautioned that he doesn't have all the information he needs to come up with a working figure for the increased revenues.

"Their staff people are working from home and pretty hampered in getting the data to us," Bellach said, stating he will try to get some action out of the Assessor's office to help him and two directors study the numbers. Jim Kempers and John Cooper will be an ad hoc committee to help Bellach with that work.

GEFD voters approved their parcel tax ordinance in 2018 and that's the one that will be applied to all the people living in the new Sonoma Valley Fire District (SVFD), a merger of Glen Ellen, Valley of Moon and Mayacamas fire districts, That merger will become effective on July 1, with directors drawn from each district.

It is likely that Kenwood will eventually merge with that super-district as part of a Sonoma County push to consolidate dozens of small fire departments into a more effective force for fire and emergency responses.

A major reason Kenwood did not join the SVFD is its low salary levels. It has fallen behind all other county fire districts in pay levels and will not be able to attract more people without more money. The shortfall has been estimated at about $700,000 needed annually to make up the pay discrepancies.

"Imposing a new tax is necessary," Bellach said.

There is a complex formula for deciding who pays what. It depends on zoning and parcel designations, with the latter affecting the commercial rates the most. While each district can decide how much of its tax to impose - up to the designated maximum - they cannot change the underlying zoning applied by the county.

Two hundred dollars ($200) is a maximum figure; it isn't required. To date, Glen Ellen has imposed 75 percent of the maximum ($150) and it looks like the new district will follow suit for now. Kenwood's new rates are likely to follow suit.

According to Bellach, the new rates could bring it a "ballpark figure of $350,000, up from the $49,000 we get now." He has been looking at the commercial properties for which he has current data and estimates that revenue from buildings in its 32 commercial zones alone would go up from $5,000 to $32,000 based on ten cents a square footage noted in the county data.

Several directors felt that the county information on building sizes could be seriously out of date and urged Bellach to find out more.

A new parcel tax would require two-thirds approval by those voting. Employees and directors of the district are not allowed to campaign directly under state laws.

"We cannot use district funds, machinery, copy machines," Doss said. "We can create educational materials explaining what the resolution is about. I can speak out as an individual, but not for the board. We cannot ask employees to take paid time to work on a campaign. We can turn to The Fire Fighters Association as a 501c(3) for endorsement and active promotion of the resolution. They can do that and use their funds, knock on doors, have signs, letters to the editors."

Doss said the district can prepare brochures and explanations of the new parcel tax ordinance. "We won't authorize this resolution until after public meetings," Doss assures, although any public meetings in the near future are likely to be audio only.

Meanwhile, the board will schedule another special meeting in a few weeks to discuss new data and work on this most pressing issue.


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