Fire District still pondering November parcel tax measure
$1.4 million budget approved, four of five directors are up for election
Kenwood's Fire District Board of Directors approved next year's budget, discussed the unusual fact that four of the five directors are up for re-election, and put off until next month deciding whether to ask district voters to approve increasing the property tax that funds the district. These are the results of the board's monthly meeting on June 9, though it was a virtual meeting, because of the current COVID pandemic.
The district's 2020-2021 Fiscal Year budget will begin on July 1, with the operations expected to have $1.4 million on hand, and the capital budget starting with $2.4 million, including anticipated interest of $17,700.
"We expected to end the year with a small deficit," Chief Daren Bellach told the directors, "but now we expect to start July 1 with a $200,000 surplus." Board Chairman Daymon Doss noted that while the district was paying out more in salaries, it was saving on overtime and receiving extra county contributions for now. The proposed budget was adopted unanimously.
At the same time, while all five directors agree that the district needs to increase the current parcel tax rates, whether this is a good time to ask for it isn't so clear.
The Kenwood Fire Protection District is funded by a voter-approved parcel tax on residential and commercial property. The residential rate is a flat $40 a year; a rate per square foot charge is levied against commercial buildings. Directors agreed earlier this year to ask for an increase to cap the rate at $200 per residential parcel. They are still working on the new commercial rate proposals.
For one thing, county voters narrowly failed to pass a half-cent permanent sales tax measure in March that would have provided over $50 million a year for fire services throughout the county. At the same time, a parcel tax measure before Geyserville Fire District residents also failed by less than two percentage points. While the reasons for those failures have been widely discussed, support from fire organizations seemed weak to many observers.
What seemed like a sure-thing following the devastating wildfires of 2017 and 2019 shocked many districts expecting enhanced revenues this year or next year, in spite of earlier tepid poll results showing the tax proposal getting the bare minimum of support needed.
"Both failed in large part because they did not have complete support of the firefighter communities they served," Board Chairman Daymon Doss said. "Without the absolute support of the Fire Fighters Association and other community members closely aligned with fire district, I don't see this being a viable choice."
While no firefighters or board members have voiced opposition to the tax measures, it is clear that some have long-held suspicions about the county supervisors' intent or ability to fairly distribute tax revenues, suspicions stemming from past promises of tax revenue that failed to materialize.
The heavy economic impact of the COVID pandemic is also weighing on directors' thinking.
"People are out of work, businesses have shut down," Director Dennis McIntosh said. "It is not the time to bring a tax."
"Even though we can get more money into the coffers," Director Jim Kempers said, "we certainly would lose a lot of favor with all the people we represent. This is the wrong year."
There are also likely to be other tax measures on the November ticket, including a ¼ cent transportation task to fund SMART, and a state measure to roll back the commercial tax protections of Proposition 13.
But Chief Bellach was not ready to throw in the towel this year.
"I believe we have close to 100 percent support from our association," he said. "I believe they will be willing to put boots on the ground if asked."
Bellach's suggestion to go ahead and retain a consultant to finalize a proposed measure as well as poll the district to determine the level of support that is out there carried the day.
"I suggest we start putting together feelers out to the community to look at the percentages, get a guesstimate of whether it will pass. At least we are trying."
The directors approved spending up to $20,000 for a consultant.
"Let's keep going with fact finding," Kempers said, adding his consent to the motion.
Stay tuned for developments.
Normally, district director elections are staggered to prevent the loss of too much institutional knowledge and leadership in any given election cycle, but the addition of two more board seats two years ago has made 2020 special: four of five of Kenwood FPD's directors are up for election.
Daymon Doss and August Moretti were appointed to the Board in February 2019, and are required to stand for election at the earliest opportunity, which is this year. Directors Kemper and Cooper were elected in 2016 and their terms expire this year.
The nomination period opens on July 13 and closes on Aug. 7. None of the directors have declared their intentions, yet. If any incumbent doesn't file by then, or decides to withdraw, the nomination period will be extended to Aug. 12.
Any resident of the fire district can run for director. Information about the filing requirements can be found online at sonomacounty.ca.gov/CRA/Registrar-of-Voters/Candidate-Filing/#where.