Fanning the flames

Abandoning the status quo, supervisors seek solution to fire funding

With little fanfare, the Butte County Board of Supervisors moved forward Tuesday (Jan. 23) on a plan to restructure fire services by instructing staff to look into the creation of a county service area (CSA). The main idea behind such a move is to empower communities to determine just how much they’re willing to contribute to a fire department.

“This would allow people to tax themselves for the level of service they want,” said Supervisor Bill Connelly, whose district includes Oroville as well as several smaller communities in southeast Butte County that were hit last summer by multiple wildfires.

The decision was unanimous, but the discussion was anything but pleasant. The harsh reality: Butte County can’t afford fire services. This has been known since at least 2015, when budget talks revealed a rising cost for such services with no added revenues. A consultant was brought in to review the situation and offer solutions—that report was brought to the board last spring. Regardless, the board chose to maintain the status quo, but was forced to close Station 42 in north Chico.

Another year of the same likely would yield more closures at the least and loss of other essential county services at the most, explained Sherry McCracken, the county’s interim chief administrative officer. Part of the problem is that fire services are largely paid for through discretionary funds. That is, money the county takes in through property taxes, sales taxes, fines and fees—as opposed to funding from state and federal sources, which tend to be earmarked.

“Even though the county has a fairly large budget, the amount you have discretion over is very limited,” McCracken said, pointing to a pie chart indicating just 21 percent of the county’s budget is discretionary. When it comes to the Butte County Fire Department, which contracts for services through Cal Fire, $18.6 million of its $19.8 million budget comes from county discretionary funds. “This makes it difficult to address budgetary problems, and nearly impossible to do so without impacting public safety.”

So, what to do? McCracken outlined several options for the board to consider. It seemed clear from the outset that increasing funding was not a viable one—any attempt to impose a tax would require a vote of the people and previous attempts to do so have been unpopular, McCracken said. An early motion to table the matter and discuss it during budget deliberations was seconded but quickly voted down, as several supervisors noted that putting it off would just delay the inevitable.

“We can’t really kick the can down the road, because we know we have a deficit coming in our budget,” Connelly said. “We have to address it.”

Among the remaining options, then, were three different governance models. The first, and most popular, was the CSA, which would allow the board to maintain decision-making authority while allowing the county to be split into smaller districts that could assess themselves based on the level of service they hope to receive. Residents of fire-prone areas such as Forest Ranch or Magalia, for instance, could choose to contribute more than those less susceptible to wildfires. Incorporated areas also could opt in.

The second option was to create a community services district, which would be run by an independently elected board. It also could extend beyond Butte County, while the other options did not include that provision. The third and final option was to create a fire protection district, which would require approval of local jurisdictions as well the Local Agency Formation Commission.

There were just three members of the public who stood up to speak. “I would like to propose a tax on commercial marijuana that we could use for fire,” said the third speaker, identified simply as “June from Bangor.” “Every year I have been saved by fire personnel. I think we should grow a lot of marijuana and tax it.”

The board did not entertain that idea, however.

“I’d like to get more information on CSAs, because it seems like that’s the way to go,” said Supervisor Maureen Kirk, whose district includes part of Chico as well as Forest Ranch and Cohasset. Ultimately, the board agreed with her, voting unanimously to direct staff to further investigate creating a CSA in Butte County. Expect this discussion to continue for the next few years at least.