County shifts on fire

A new funding mechanism will maintain coverage, keep stations open

Cal Fire contracts with Butte County as well as Biggs, Gridley and Paradise.

Cal Fire contracts with Butte County as well as Biggs, Gridley and Paradise.

Photo courtesy of Cal Fire

After more than a decade of back-and-forth over how to deal with a general fund deficit that continuously leads to a discussion of which county fire stations to close, the Butte County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday (Aug. 28) voted to direct staff to explore a new model. The vote was not unanimous (3-2) and as the panel closed discussion on the matter, it was unclear how many of them fully grasped the concept at hand.

To be fair, the subject of fire coverage for the unincorporated areas of the county is not a simple one. And it involves life or death. But that’s exactly why Supervisor Bill Connelly pushed a taxpayer-funded option that will go to the voters.

“I support letting the people decide,” he said. “Keeping the status quo is kicking the can.”

The status quo would be to maintain the Butte County Fire Department, which essentially is Cal Fire, as is, without additional funding. During the fire season, which is ever-expanding, the state mans 11 stations in Butte County’s unincorporated areas. In the off-season, the county pays to keep those stations open, to the tune of about $220,000 apiece. With a general fund deficit running around $1 million a year, the board is regularly faced with what services to cut—and fire is at the top of the list.

So, how to fill the hole in the budget and maintain fire service? Two options were on the table: transferring responsibility to a county service area (CSA) or creating a fire protection district (FPD). While both would be overseen by the Board of Supervisors and require additional funding, such as a tax, the biggest difference between the two is that a CSA is a funding mechanism, while an FPD is an entirely new agency.

None of the supervisors expressed any interest in an FPD, while three were in favor of a CSA—Connelly, Maureen Kirk and Steve Lambert. Doug Teeter and Larry Wahl voted to maintain the status quo, though that motion died.

Going forward, county staff will begin the process of transferring fire protection service to a CSA. Funding will rely on a parcel tax, which requires a two-thirds vote of those living in unincorporated areas—so, ultimately, local residents will have the final say in the matter. The board nixed an idea that would have assessed properties based on the benefit received—basically, those closer to stations would pay more than those farther away, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Andy Pickett explained.

Complicating matters, and the reason for denying a benefit-assessment tax, is the fact that the county’s 11 stations don’t work in isolation—they collaborate with all of the other stations in the county, Pickett told the board.

To illustrate the relationship, he displayed three different scenarios, complete with PowerPoint animation. When there’s a fire in Richvale, for instance, the three closest stations might send their engines to the scene. But other nearby stations also respond—by sending their engines to the empty stations as backup. This applies regardless of whether a station is run by Cal Fire or a municipal department.

Some on the panel were confused at times, asking redundant questions and one that even prompted Pickett to blunty reply: “Your question doesn’t fit in with the discussion today.”

“I’m going to be faced with voting on this board to close stations,” Connelly said. “And so are you,” he added, addressing the other supervisors who represent largely rural areas. If the voters choose not to approve a CSA, then he’ll feel more comfortable closing stations, he said.

County staff will come back to the board within six months with options for how much a tax would be. The CSA and tax proposal must also go before the Local Agency Formation Commission before being put on the ballot—likely in 2020.

Lambert agreed. “I hate paying taxes,” he said. “But I also like fire trucks to show up at my house if there’s a fire.”

In other news: The board on Tuesday voted to move forward with plans to expand the Butte County Jail by awarding a contract to McCarthy Building Companies Inc. The first phase will include construction of a new evidence storage and morgue facility. The entire project is expected to cost $44.4 million, with the bulk of that coming from the state.

Moving forward, the design for the first phase is now complete and construction can begin. It’s expected to be completed by summer 2020. Designs are currently being drawn up for the rest of the jail expansion and should be finished by late October, according to staff reports.