Is there a fire fee in the future?
Flummoxed on funding, supervisors look to residents
Are Butte County residents willing to pay more for fire protection?
That was the great unanswered question at a special meeting of the Board of Supervisors Monday (Dec. 14). As became clear during the meeting, if county residents want better service, that could be the only way they are going to obtain it, at least in the next few years.
One thing is for certain: New interim Chief Administrative Officer Scott Tandy and Chief Financial Officer Greg Iturria are both convinced there is no money available now or in the near future to eliminate the “rolling brownouts” that have two of the county’s 12 fire stations closed every day on a rotating basis.
The special meeting was held in response to an earlier board request that staff do a comprehensive analysis of fund balances—that is, money left over at the end of the 2008-09 fiscal year—and report on the feasibility of restoring sustainable funding for fire protection.
Addressing the board, Tandy said he’d “taken the liberty” of adding a five-year forecast of county budgets in order to put things in perspective.
The good news, Iturria told the board, is that the county’s available carryover balance in the general fund is $9 million, higher than expected, thanks to prudence on the part of department heads.
On the other hand, $2 million of that is legally restricted and can’t be spent as the board wishes, and the remaining $7 million has been added to the county’s contingency, or emergency, fund.
That fund now contains $11.5 million, but of that $4.5 billion will be needed to balance the 2011-12 budget, leaving $7 million. That money will be needed, Iturria explained, for cash-flow purposes as well because the forecast is for continuing deficits in the following years.
The prediction is for the county to have a $3.2 million deficit in 2012-13, $2.8 million the next year, and $2.5 million the year after that, Iturria said.
“You’re in a position to weather the storm next year,” Tandy said, “but the budget is delicately balanced, and the gap will come back in 2011-12.”
The financial figures, both Tandy and Iturria emphasized, do not take into consideration “the gorilla in the room,” as Iturria put it, namely the state of California and its projected $20.7 billion shortfall over the next 18 months. The state could very well fix its problem at least in part by reducing funding to cities and counties, the men said.
In addition to not knowing how the state will deal with its budget deficit, nobody knows how fast the economy will recover, Iturria said. Right now a slow recovery is predicted, with high unemployment continuing and housing values staying down—and commercial values perhaps coming down, too. Such conditions result in lower tax revenues going to the county, he explained.
Part of the problem, Deputy Administrative Officer Andy Pickett told the board, is that funding for public safety, including fire protection, virtually doubled between 1999-2000 and 2009-10, going from around $45 million to around $85 million. A big cause was a generous wages-and-benefits package, including enhanced retirement, agreed to in the flush year of 2005-06.
When revenues went in the tank, the county had no choice but to make cuts—in positions as well as equipment replacement.
Full restoration of public-safety funding would cost $12.5 million, Pickett said, adding, “This is clearly not a feasible scenario.”
Partial restoration of just the fire service would cost $1.1 million, which means that the budget deficit in 2011-12 would be $4.3 million instead of $3.2 million.
“Can any restoration be done in a sustainable way?” Tandy asked rhetorically. “Unfortunately, the answer is no at this time.”
Several people from the audience got up to speak during the meeting. Some wanted mainly to underscore their need for full-time fire stations, for both fire protection and first aid.
A property owner from Bangor suggested the county look to a service fee, or per-parcel fee, since landowners “are the ones who will benefit” from better fire protection. A second man, from Feather Falls, agreed that a parcel tax would be OK.
But another man, from Magalia, said he thought a parcel fee “would be a hard sell right now.”
After expressing frustration with the state’s inability to get its fiscal act together, the supervisors agreed with Supervisor Jane Dolan, who stated, “I think we need to figure out how to end the brownouts by the start of fire season.”
They directed George Morris, who will be taking over as fire chief Jan. 1, to come back in March with a “bare-bones” plan to eliminate brownouts. They also asked Tandy to update his presentation by mid-March.
They weren’t hopeful. “At this point it’s really up to the residents of the rural areas,” Dolan said.