No tax increase for Kenwood fire district this year
Directors opt to work on benefit assessment raise in spring of 2021
“Going for a tax increase this year is just crazy,” was Jim Kempers’ considered opinion about asking Kenwood voters to increase their local fire department assessments.
The board met at a special meeting on Thursday, June 25, called to consider one issue: whether to put a benefit assessment increase on the Nov. 3 ballot. The issue has been under scrutiny of a special Ad Hoc Committee that consisted of directors Kempers and John Cooper with help from Assistant Fire Chief Bob Uboldi and Fire Chief Daren Bellach. Denny Rosatti, a Sebastopol-based political and campaign consultant, came to present a proposal to poll local voters and manage a ballot campaign.
Rosatti’s proposal was short-lived.
At the halfway point, Director Kempers moved to table the whole idea for this year. Director Cooper seconded that motion. Chair Daymon Doss and Chief Bellach allowed Rosatti to finish his presentation as part of a discussion on the motion. At the end of the day, however, the other four directors agreed with Kempers, voting 5-0 to drop any further moves to raise the rates this year.
When asked directly about the best time to place such a measure on the ballot, Rosatti generally gave the nod to the November ballot, noting that a Presidential year brings high turnouts. He also observed that Kenwood’s voters approved the half-cent permanent sales tax Measure G in March by 70 percent.
However, Kenwood’s fire department is in good financial condition and is under little pressure to act right now, according to Board Chairman Daymon Doss.
“We need to see what will happen after this year’s election and the economic situation,” Doss said after the meeting.
The KFD actually made a profit last year, and expects to sign off June’s end of fiscal year budget with an extra $50,000, which has already been included in next year’s operating budget of $944,634 (up $20,000 from FY19-20).
“If we have another good year, we could save more money,” Doss mused, “but we may be challenged later.” Doss noted the already dangerous fire conditions prevailing in California.
Normally staffed with two full-time fire fighters 24/7, more people are brought in when the fire danger rises to critical levels. While the district spent $19,000 less on overtime than anticipated last year, that could change in a heartbeat.
The FY20-21 budget also includes a $35,000 raise for firefighters, the second seven percent raise in a row negotiated in last year’s labor contract. One of the major obstacles to consolidating Kenwood with other fire districts is its low pay scale, one of the lowest in the county. In an era where volunteers are increasingly difficult to recruit, finding professional firefighters to work in this very expensive demographic is not getting easier; the district needs to offer competitive salaries.
Kenwood’s Fire District is ahead of others in the county on its CalPERS retirement fund contributions, which is a solid plus in the financial column.
The district’s existing benefit assessment – NOT a parcel tax – is set at $40 per residential parcel and has a square footage rate for some ag and commercial properties, though they provide a minority of those funds. It returned just over $40,000 last year.
The differences between a benefit assessment and a parcel tax are subtle: each is considered a specific tax and requires a two-thirds vote in California. But while a benefit assessment must be used for a single, specified purpose, a parcel tax can have a more fluid use, such as in school districts where it can be used for salaries or building. Those differences continue to keep California lawyers and courtrooms busy refining the distinctions.
Kenwood also enjoys “a property tax allocation rate of 9.01 percent, which is about one percentage point higher than the average for fire districts in the County,” according to a district-wide review by Sonoma’s Local Agency Formation Commission last year.
Along with $813,770 in property tax receipts, $43,500 in fees for other services provided, $13,000 from the county/state for making wildland/urban property inspections, and a one-time payment for its 2017 wildfire expenses, the district will have received $924,468 last fiscal year, ending on June 30.
For FY20-21, the district projects making $944,634, but is projecting a shortfall of over $90,000, though that figure will vary with next year’s circumstances. More fires means more expense and overtime, Doss said.
With an expected operating fund of nearly $1.5 million and capital reserves of over $2.4 million the directors all agreed that some caution is warranted before the next major decision is made on the district’s financial needs. They agreed to look at the matter again next spring, taking note that it can take up to two years from the time an assessment is approved before funds begin to be realized.
Four director seats up for electionKenwood voters will elect four of the five sitting directors in November. Normally, five-person district elections are staggered, with two then three directors running in alternate election years.
However, Kenwood expanded from three to five directors two years ago, which has made 2020 special since appointed directors must run for the office in the next available election cycle.
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 Kempers 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.
Under terms of the appointment, Chairman Doss will have to stand for a two-year term if he runs. Moretti will run for a four-year term if he decides to continue.
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.