While a group of residents opposing Arcata Fire District’s proposed tax measure in the March election emphasized their respect for first responders, they suggested Thursday that the district could cuts costs by staffing volunteers.
“I have no disregard for firefighters, but I don’t think all of them need to be full-time firefighters,” said Uri Driscoll, president of the Humboldt County Taxpayers League. “I think a lot of calls that they respond to… how many of those are fires and require the full training?”
Fire Chief Justin McDonald has made the rounds for weeks calling on residents to pass the tax on next month’s ballot. The district — which covers the city of Arcata and the communities of Bayside, Manila, Jacoby Creek and McKinleyville — needs two-thirds voter approval to enact the tax.
Measure R, if passed, would help the district keep its six firefighters on staff and begin paying off three years of deficits that amount to nearly $1 million. McDonald has said the measure is crucial to public safety.
The tax would steeply increase fire contributions for residents covered by the district. A single-family home, for instance, would go from paying $108 to dishing out $206 each year — about a 91% jump.
Driscoll, a former candidate for 3rd District Humboldt County supervisor, said the Arcata Fire District needs “creative solutions” for its financial woes, suggesting it would be better served setting up a school for training new community firefighters instead of paying out full-time salaries.
Homes in rural areas — classified by their relative distance from fire hydrants — would pay up to $324 each year if Measure R passes. Taxpayers League executive director Kent Sawatzky said the burden would be far too high on the district’s smaller communities.
“I call it a regressive tax,” Sawatzky said. “They’re putting it on the people who can’t afford to pay it.”
District board President Nicole Johnson said Thursday that the tax’s opponents likely hadn’t done their homework before speaking out against the measure. The district’s wide area of coverage, large population and high number of emergency calls render it unique among local fire agencies, she said.
“If you’re a volunteer, you get a call, you have to leave your job, come to the station, put on your gear, get in the truck and go,” Johnson said. “Why would the community want that option?”
With a high burden of work and a smaller staff, the district has had to dip into savings funds from its last three fiscal periods to make ends meet, she added. The district has warned that multiple firefighters will lose their jobs this summer if the ballot measure isn’t approved.
With a two-thirds voter threshold to meet, Johnson is hopeful the district can impress its urgency upon the community.
“It’s been a struggle,” she said. “We can’t really say whether (this vote) is going to go in our favor, but we’ve been trying to do an education campaign, getting people to understand that firefighters are more than just firefighters. They provide all emergency services.”
Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.