County fire department seeks funding solution
by Joe Shreve
01.31.13 - 01:48 pm
Faced with the grim reality of rapidly deteriorating firefighting equipment, county fire advisers will spend several weeks researching avenues of raising money to suggest to the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors.

Among a slew of budgetary concerns discussed at the meeting of the Santa Cruz County Fire Department Advisory Board on Wednesday, Jan. 16, was the advancing state of disrepair on County Fire’s aging fleet of fire trucks, tankers and other equipment — brought on by two years and $2.8 million of deferred maintenance due to budget constraints.

“We have a two-year lead on a train wreck,” said Arnie Wernick, the board’s representative from the 5th Supervisorial District, which includes the San Lorenzo Valley and part of Scotts Valley. “We won’t have equipment to respond with if we don’t act now.”

County Fire is the year-round branch of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in Santa Cruz County. County Fire stations are funded by property tax revenue and staffed in part by Cal Fire crews, County Fire employees and volunteer companies. 

According to board chairman Alex Leman, although the board members have not settled upon a plan to present to the supervisors, securing funding for equipment is the board’s primary goal.

“What we decided to do is place a high priority on replacing or repairing some of the apparatus that are having issues,” he said. “We didn’t actually decide on what form that would take.”

According to staff reports, eight of the department’s 12 fire engines are more than 20 years old, and of that number, four are nonoperational.

Leman said the board would be considering many options to raise money for equipment repairs and upgrades, and a bond measure proposal or tax could be entertained.

“We need to talk to some of the financial folks down at the county,” he said. “Either rule the (options) in or rule them out.”

Leman said the board realized that any appeal to taxpayers would be a difficult sell in the wake of a $150 fee state legislators levied on property owners in December to support Cal Fire, the department’s partner agency. The fee was reduced to $115 for residents who live in a fire district.

“It’s really unfortunate,” Leman said. “(Any proposed tax or bond measure is) going to require an awful lot of education on our part — people just paid $115.”

Scott Jalbert, who took over as chief of the San Mateo-Santa Cruz Cal Fire unit on Tuesday, Jan. 22, said at the Jan. 16 meeting that finding money for equipment as soon as possible was essential for the survival of County Fire as an effective firefighting agency.

“You can have all the firefighters in the world,” Jalbert said. “But if the engine can’t leave the barn, it’s not going to do any good.”

Members of the advisory board will decide what action to ask supervisors to take during a special meeting that will be scheduled in late February.

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© 2013