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Higgins fire tax fails by 29 votes

Voters reject Measure O, district will carry on as is
By: Andrew Westrope, Staff Writer
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Voters turned down a new tax proposal by a margin of 1.1 percent this week to restore Higgins Fire Protection District service to what it was last spring.

If it had passed, Measure O would have temporarily replaced the current $25-per-structure tax on residential property with a $125 tax through 2023, at which point the $25 rate would have been reinstated. Additionally, commercial buildings would have paid $40 per 1,000 square feet and industrial buildings $45 per 1,000 square feet during that time. This would have brought in more than $400,000 to Higgins Area Fire Protection District, which covers approximately 90 square miles of southern Nevada County along a four-mile stretch of Highway 49.

Measure O would have allowed the district to rehire the six employees it laid off when Measure B, a similar proposal, failed last June, and restore its two satellite stations to full-time operation.

On Tuesday, Measure O received 1,895 votes in favor and 995 votes against via mail-in ballots, just 29 shy of the required 66.7 percent majority it needed to pass. Since the measure failed, the district will continue operating with 10 full-time firefighters and 18 paid on-call to staff two of its three fire stations at a time. The district’s Dog Bar and McCourtney stations will continue to operate on alternating months, leaving one closed at a time.

Proponents of the measure had said the current tax rate, which has been in place since 1980, was no longer sufficient to fund fire services for the district’s 12,000 residents. Voters turned down a similar proposal in June 2012 by a margin of 150 ballots.

Battalion Chief Jerry Good said he was “extremely shocked” at the outcome of the election, as the district was not asking for any money to raise benefits or wages, and it had made concessions to sway voters who turned down Measure B last year.

“We did make it a little more appealing by putting a 10-year cap on that tax, as well as taking out the annual increase,” he said. “We could be coming into a very, very active fire season … We’re fighting those fires with a third less staff, daily, so that’s pretty significant.”

Though some expenses like fuel and maintenance tend to increase every year, Good said he expects the district’s finances to remain fairly stable for the rest of the 2013-2014 fiscal year with no major cuts or changes in revenue.

Firefighter Reuben Burton, who staffs the McCourtney station, said his station must make do with two firefighters per shift, three shifts a day. Having come from a fire in Chico on Thursday, he said he had to find either a volunteer or one of the other six paid fighters to staff an engine to make that run.

“Basically, anything more than the regular difficulty-breathing medical aid, we need help. We just don’t have the people to be able to fully mitigate the problem,” he said. “So we rely on a lot of mutual aid from Nevada County Fire and from CalFire coming over the Placer County line to help us out.”

Firefighter Jarrett Grassl said the initial disappointment of the election is giving way to concern about the daunting task of heading into fire season with a skeleton crew.

“With the decreased staffing, it’s going to be hard to staff the engines and be able to go out and help with the wild land fires throughout the summer, as well as just keep the station staffed in the local area,” he said. “We’re going to have to get together and look at a long-term plan. What we’ve been doing for the past year, look at the cost and how that’s been working … We might have to make some changes with the reduced staffing.”

Good said average response times have doubled to 12 minutes since the district dropped one of its three stations, and Higgins insurance premiums are on the rise because of it. He said a committee of board members and employees is working to come up with a new financial plan by the end of the month, but what that will look like is anyone’s guess.

“Nobody has a crystal ball as to what the valuation of the housing market is going to be,” Good said. “We’re looking at any and all options. Nothing is off the table at this point.”

Board members were not immediately available for comment.