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Supes Hear Ideas For Fire Services Revenue Raisers

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Sonora, CA – Charging more fees to recover rising costs of local fire and emergency response calls got the supervisors’ ears as did data reflecting a dire need to significantly grow the fire services budget.

Tuesday afternoon the board addressed under its regular agenda some revenue options to help stabilize and enhance county fire services.

Tuolumne County Assistant Fire Chief Andy Murphy, who joined Deputy County Administrator Maureen Frank and Senior Administrative analyst Liz Peterson to make the presentation, impressed some suggested immediate measures. They also indicated that while necessary to reactively help recover service costs, they would not even begin to proactively meet the department’s delivery goals for improved public safety.

The trio pointed out that the Tuolumne County Fire Department is responding to thousands of calls every year. While the county grapples with a stretched-thin budget, the Tuolumne County Fire Department reports a 51 percent increase in overall calls.

EMS Responses Alone Up 68 Percent

These range from fires and other incident types such as the delivery of emergency medical services (EMS) and rescues, to responding to natural disasters and hazardous materials incidents. Murphy noted a 68 percent increase in EMS delivery assistance alone from 2006 to 2018 when the unit logged over 4,300.

The problem is hardly unique, they argued, as national trends point to similar deficiencies in funding for staffing, training, facilities, equipment, fire prevention, and education. While fire protection and EMS have historically been funded from property taxes and grant funding, county administrators are looking to increase efficiencies and identify potential new revenue streams to augment donations and grants.

Frank shared with the board that the county’s $450,000 general fund contribution used to cover costs and adequately cover all the county fire line items was no longer keeping up with service provision costs, even with Chief Murphy’s and others’ aggressive efforts to locate grant dollars for various projects and programs.

Back on Aug. 6, an ad hoc committee formed under supervisors John Gray and Ryan Campbell. On Sept. 4, it met to discuss funding challenges and numerous revenue source possibilities. Among these were development impact and user fees, sales of surplus assets and services, and a benefit assessment or parcel tax on real property that would go directly into the county fire fund.

Some Key Funding Sources Uncertain

Fire At Tuesday’s meeting, staff recommended these options for starters. Murphy shared that a key funding source, state fire reimbursements that cover equipment and personnel used in firefighting assistance calls varies each fire season and has ranged from $24,000 to $535,000 in recent years.

“The goals of the fire service are pretty simple: to reduce loss to life and property,” Murphy stated.  While the department already conducts some preventative outreach and education, he stressed that funding to cover more of it is among some of the short-term solutions that cost-recovery monies could pay for.

Looking at unmet long-term and infrastructural needs, he cited an average age of 23 years among the department’s fire engines as an example. He also pointed to a lack of updated and specialized equipment among the necessary resources to cover current community needs and future planning.

Among the arguments made is that by instituting an annual benefit assessment fee and requiring all commercial, industrial, multi-family residential, and residential care entities to pay it — possibly bundling in a Fire Code and Life-Safety inspection — owners would ostensibly help cover user services and have safer properties. Currently, the fire department does not charge for many of its commercial inspections and several categories are not required to undergo annual inspections.

Other Revenue Recovery Fees 

Among other potential per-incident fees listed: charges to nonresidents for medical calls; false fire alarm responses; public assistance emergency and non-emergency requests such as lift-assists.

One county fire asset mentioned as a potential surplus property that could be sold was the Stent-Jacksonville facility, in use not as a fire station but a warehouse. Peterson added there is still a multitude of revenue-gathering options that staff will continue exploring and vetting with county counsel ahead of bringing them to the board.

Campbell commented that none of the proposed fee recovery measures suggested sounded unreasonable to him. Gray added, “What the staff is recommending is like a starting point. It is not the answer [to long-term goals].”

Frank confided that over the course of extensive discussions with fire chiefs she has heard a great deal of willingness to explore opportunities towards the consolidation of fire services. “But County Fire needs to be financially stable…we will need additional funds to make a merger a reality.” After querying his colleagues for a consensus, Board Chair Karl Rodefer summarized for staff, “I am okay with all the suggestions — go put a package together.”