Fire chief: Sales tax would ensure fire department staffing

By Eric Vodden
The Appeal-Democrat

MARYSVILLE, Calif. — Marysville officials hope on-again, off-again staffing issues in the city's fire department can be resolved through the Measure W sales tax proposal on the November ballot.

The CalFire-managed department runs fine with current "on-again" staffing — namely, an industry-minimum standard of three full-time firefighters on duty during each shift.

But there is no guarantee that a two-year federal grant that provides funding to maintain that level will be renewed when it expires in March 2016. In fact, City Manager Walter Munchheimer said, there is a pretty good chance it won't be because it's a competitive grant that the city has already received twice.

"At some point, they will give it to somebody else," Munchheimer said.

Revenues from the sales tax would allow the hiring of three full-time firefighters once grant funding expires. That would ensure three-per-shift staffing, that multiple vehicles could be taken to the scene of a fire and that two firefighters could enter a burning building, he said.

Measure W would impose a sales tax of one penny for every dollar spent in the city to bolster Marysville's dwindling revenues. The measure on the Nov. 4 ballot would generate an additional $1.7 million to $1.9 million for the city, according to consultant HdL Companies.

In the separate nonbinding Measure Y, the city asks whether it should spend 40 percent of the additional sales tax revenues generated on public safety, including the fire department.

Fire insurance

Measure Y also refers to the "threat that fire and emergency response times and fire insurance premiums for homeowners will increase when grants expire."

Robert Andrews, vice president of community hazard mitigation at the Insurance Service Office, confirmed staffing levels are among criteria used to determine a city's public protection rating. That rating — which ranges from 1 as the best to 10 as the worst — is used by insurance companies to set commercial and residential fire insurance rates.

Marysville's department currently carries a 4 rating, a fire department spokesman said.

Andrews couldn't say whether a return to two firefighters-per-shift staffing would affect the city's rating. Ratings also consider such factors as equipment, training, automatic aid agreements, geographic distribution, water supply and emergency communications.

"A detailed analysis would have to be conducted to determine the effect that a change in staffing would have on an individual grading," Andrews said in an email.

Dropping CalFire

The sales tax measure comes at a time when Marysville is ending its 17-year relationship with CalFire and embarking on forming its own department.

The annual cost estimate for a city-run department has been placed at about $1.3 million a year, compared to the $1.7 million projected annual city cost for staying with CalFire.

But even with projections of a lower-cost department, funds will still be needed to maintain permanent three-per-shift staffing, Munchheimer said.

"Retaining a sustainable fire service in the community is everybody's highest priority," Munchheimer said. "Nobody wants this to be the new normal. Making sure we can sustain staffing without the grant is the highest priority."

A regional approach

Marysville officials have been taking part in ongoing discussions with south Yuba County agencies on a regional approach to providing fire protection.

But Walter Munchheimer, Marysville city manager, said that matter is separate from efforts to boost the city's fire services budget through the sales tax.

Such a merger, Munchheimer said, is more a service benefit than a budget-cutting advantage. An example, he said, might be that a joint fire prevention officer could be hired to serve all of the agencies when none of them currently has such a position.

"The advantage of a merged group is more service-oriented than a solution for our fiscal situation," Munchheimer said.

Marysville officials have been joined by Linda Fire Protection District, Olivehurst Public Utility District and Wheatland Fire Authority in looking at the idea of joining forces. Each of the agencies, along with Yuba County, chipped in for the $33,000 cost for consultant Citygate Associates of Folsom to come up with a plan.

Yuba County Administrator Robert Bendorf, who is facilitating the meetings, said the group met Friday morning to discuss recommendations made in Citygate's draft report. A final report is expected in a few weeks, and a public workshop in October is planned.

Linda, as the largest department of those taking part, is seen as a key player in the talks. Chief Richard Webb said his department is still all-in on the idea.

"We are actively participating in the study," he said.

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(c)2014 the Appeal-Democrat (Marysville, Calif.)

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