Putting a price on safety
Paradise Town Council members approve ballot measure asking residents to fund additional fire and police protection
For many Paradise residents, the Humboldt Fire seems more recent than two years ago. “I have a lot of vivid memories of it,” says Christine Hanawalt, who can recall the afternoon of June 11, 2008, in specific detail.
She, her husband, Andy, and daughter, Piper, lived near the southwest edge of town. She worked in central Paradise, and when news of the wildfire broke, Hanawalt and her co-workers “watched the cloud of smoke getting bigger and bigger, knowing my house was down there.”
When evacuation orders began, she drove home. “There was a lot of panic in the air—you could feel the tension,” she recalls. The Hanawalts had about an hour to load up their car before a police officer drove by announcing on a loudspeaker, “You have to leave now!” The exodus was excruciatingly slow: Amid all the cars and trailers was a truck of people holding the reins of a horse as it galloped down the street.
Safely down the hill, the family thought their house was gone, but thanks to a fortunate turn of the wind, as well as the efforts of firefighters, the property had been spared. Hanawalt, who like her husband was raised in Paradise, said she “never really thought about [fire risks] much growing up. There were always little fires in Butte Creek Canyon, but none that were close to Paradise, and never were we evacuated.”
The Humboldt Fire “has made me think about it. Hopefully people are more prepared for it, because it easily could have gone the other way and been much worse.”
Paradise Town Council members have equally vivid memories. That’s why, at a special meeting last Wednesday (April 20), they decided to put before the voters a parcel tax to bolster public safety. In November’s general election, residents will decide whether the town should collect $1.2 million a year—$110 per parcel—to hire four police officers, six firefighters and two additional employees to expand fire-prevention measures.
Monies from such a tax will go into a special fund, which Town Manager Chuck Rough pledges will be open to public monitoring via regular activity reports updated online. The tax also has a “sunset” of six years, meaning voters would have to reauthorize the tax in order for it to continue after the 2016-17 fiscal year.
The meeting drew around 100 citizens, many from the local Tea Party, and the majority of the 25 speakers expressed opposition. The council’s approval was not unanimous, either: Woody Culleton, Frankie Rutledge and Mayor Scott Lotter voted in favor; Alan White and Vice Mayor Joe DiDuca voted against.
White, however, supports the tax. He just feels it would have a better chance of passing if it came from the citizens, not the council.
“Personally, I think it’s a good expense of my personal money,” he said. “I will certainly encourage anyone who talks to me to strongly consider a ‘yes’ [vote]. I just wish we would have done it as a ballot initiative, with a signature drive, because that would’ve shown the support of 2,000 people, not just five.”
His colleagues see that level of support. Soon after the Humboldt Fire, the town received a petition with 1,800 signatures calling for increased fire protection. That served as the impetus for a Ridge-wide service district for fire prevention, which morphed into the town-only public-safety tax when the town ran into opposition at the county level.
In particular, resistance came from Butte County Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi, whose district includes Paradise as well as neighboring unincorporated areas. Yamaguchi (who did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment) spoke against the safety tax at the Town Council meeting.
An assessment for the service district would have generated around $160,000 a year dedicated to reducing the threat of wildfire through property inspections and maintaining fire breaks. “People felt we needed to include the Upper Ridge because fire doesn’t recognize the ‘town limits’ sign,” Lotter said. Once town officials realized they’d have to go it alone, they opted to expand the scope of the parcel tax.
“You get one bite at the apple, so to speak,” said Lotter, a movie-theater owner in his eighth year on the council. “We’ve always had a problem in Paradise having adequate staffing for the Police Department and Fire Department.”
While it might seem easier to get support for a smaller tax, Lotter replied that the council “felt that there are people who would vote no on it if it were $2 a year—‘I won’t pay for any new taxes.’ You’re battling that, so whether you had $70 fire only or $110 fire and police, you still have got a big hurdle to cross.”
The Paradise council and town manager know full well that they have a challenge ahead of them. “I believe we have to be realists about the environment in which we’re asking people to pass a tax,” Rough said, “but I do believe there is a compelling case.”
Culleton, who called the decision “one of the toughest votes I’ve ever made in my five years on the council,” took the sentiment of the crowd into account and seriously considered a question from White on whether the cash-strapped town should spend $7,000 to $10,000 to get the tax on the ballot.
In the end, Culleton was swayed by a different economic consideration. Even though he’s unemployed and about to go on Social Security, “I’ll pay the $110 a year, because it will make my community safer and hopefully Allstate won’t cancel my fire insurance”—something he’s learned is a real risk if the town’s fire-response rating drops below a certain level. “That would cost me a lot more than $110 a year.”
Chief Chris Jensen of the Paradise Fire Department recently went to a new deployment plan with three-member engine crews instead of two—but in order to accomplish this without adding personnel, the town is closing one of its three stations.
Jensen says the new plan allows for faster response times because he needn’t dispatch two two-man engines to an emergency where one three-man engine will suffice. Hiring six additional firefighters—paid for two years under a federal grant, then at least four under the public-safety tax—would enable Paradise to staff three-man engines at all three stations.
“Our public safety is at minimum standards,” Culleton said. “We put that to the voters knowing it’s the worst possible time to ask people to tax themselves. It’s a long shot.”
Yet it’s one for which he says he’ll actively campaign. So will Lotter and Rutledge, who will be up for re-election on the same ballot as the parcel tax. “I think this is the best thing for the town,” said Rutledge, a resident since before Paradise incorporated in 1979. “I put that before running for the council. If the tax doesn’t pass, that’s OK. I think citizens have a right to make a decision about the level of service of public safety.”
Hanawalt, one of their constituents, isn’t sure where she stands on the tax. The measure will require a two-thirds majority to take effect. She wants more information before deciding. That she’ll certainly get before Nov. 9.