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Tuolumne County Supervisors Question JPA Tax Proposal

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Sonora, CA — The newly formed Tuolumne County Fire Department Joint Powers Authority (JPA) did not get consensus to proceed with a proposed special election for a parcel tax to fund the county’s fire departments. The three new supervisors, Kathleen Haff of District Four, David Goldemberg in District One and Jaron Brandon of District Five all had questions about the details and asked about alternatives and ways to lessen the burden of the tax. The reservations were due to many aspects including the very short timeline to approve holding a special election on June 8th.

Clerk and Auditor-Controller Debbie Bautista explained, “There is a very small window of time between when the time the assessor gives the roll to the auditor, and the auditor puts the tax information on it, turns it over the to the treasurer-tax collector for him to print the bills and send out the bills.” She stated she didn’t want to decide which parcel gets assessed this tax, noting it is time-consuming to identify which of the multiple parcels are owned by one person, the square footage of a residence or what to do when parcels are divided. Bautista stressed wanting the process to be as easy as possible on her staff and compared it to school bonds that apply per parcel without exception or combining. There are approximately 23,000 homes in Tuolumne County and three appraisers, who admitted in the meeting that the square footage of some homes has not been assessed in decades.

The proposed tax is a flat rate of $75 per unimproved parcel (no habitable structures) or $150 per parcel with structures in the JPA’s jurisdiction which excludes the Twain Harte Community Services District, Mi-Wuk/Sugar Pine Fire Protection District, Strawberry Fire Protection District, and the Tuolumne Rancheria Fire Department service area.

Exemptions from the property tax will be similar to those for regular property taxes, but all zoned of parcels will be taxed. If approved by voters the new annual tax can only increase 2% annually bringing in an estimated $4,183,950 the first year. The money could only be spent on fire-related expenses, with the majority $3,117,975, allocated to Tuolumne County Fire services. With those funds, the JPA states it will create a strategic plan for fire station locations, including planning, building, and staffing three new fire stations within ten years. The money will also be used to decrease the reliance on the General Fund which grew from $348,000 in 2017-18 to over $1.5 million in the 2020-21 fiscal year. The JPA wants to plan a fleet replacement program, including modernizing the current outdated fleet within 10 years and setting aside funds for future replacements. They cite needing to create a replacement plan for required equipment including Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus, Jaws of Life, personal protective and all the other equipment they use.

Hosting a special election could cost between $4 to $5 per voter or up to $131,975.

Board Chair, Ryan Campbell stated he was surprised there was not more support to find secure funding for fire services saying, “we are not levying a tax on our citizens we are allowing citizens to decide what level of fire safety they want to see in our community.” Anaiah Kirk, District 3 Supervisor supported the long-term funding for fire services noting the amount matches the state’s suspended Fire Prevention Tax and his support for a question and answer feature on the website to inform and collect questions from residents.

In December a Tuolumne County Fire Joint Powers Authority was created from the members of the fire departments of County of Tuolumne, City of Sonora, Groveland Community Services District, Columbia Fire Protection District, Jamestown Fire Protection District, and the Tuolumne Fire District. Voters who are not within the jurisdiction of the newly formed JPA will not vote on the tax which includes the Twain Harte Community Services District, Mi-Wuk/Sugar Pine Fire Protection District and the Strawberry Fire Protection District. The Tuolumne Rancheria Fire Department also opted not to participate in the JPA.

The board agenda item was not scheduled to allow for proposals of changes to the information presented, the board will review all the information and discuss the issue again at upcoming meetings.

If the special election is approved the ballot measure would require 2/3 of county voters in the JPA areas to vote in favor to pass the tax.