Supervisors don't buy Grand Jury fire recomendations
The Plumas County Board of Supervisors agreed with the Grand Jury Report’s sense of urgency on the topic of county fire protection but didn’t seem to agree with many of the Grand Jury’s suggested solutions.
The Grand Jury said it didn’t “presume to know exactly what action must be taken,” but that didn’t stop it from making very specific recommendations at times.
The report began by declaring that 4,361 parcels in the county, 19 percent of the parcels in Plumas, had no fire protection services.
Residents on those parcels couldn’t be guaranteed a firefighting response if they lived outside of a fire district and could be billed for services if they were provided.
The Board of Supervisors said the first statement regarding fire protection services was contradicted by the second, which the supervisors found more accurate.
They agreed the issue was still a massive problem because fire departments that respond to incidents outside their districts either lose money or have to charge the homeowner.
The Grand Jury said the Board of Supervisors was doing “next to nothing,” before demanding county government “take immediate action to ensure the safety of its citizens.”
The supervisors disagreed with that characterization, saying they formed the Emergency and Fire Services Advisory Committee specifically to deal with the issue.
The committee includes various fire chiefs, county department heads with related duties and supervisors.
The supervisors’ response indicated the county also “approved property tax sharing with fire districts to encourage annexations of additional territory into existing districts.”
The supervisors also addressed the fact that they have been waiting for fire chiefs to reach consensus on how to proceed.
At a recent meeting, Indian Valley Supervisor Robert Meacher successfully lobbied the board to save some Secure Rural Schools Title III funding for possibly hiring a countywide fire marshal once the chiefs make a decision.
The board also said the county’s fire protection issues resulted from “a combination of both inadequate planning in the past and unavoidable challenges of providing services to rural and sparsely populated areas.”
The supervisors agreed homeowners should take steps to find out if they were in a fire district, whether the nearest fire department would respond to their home in an emergency and whether they would be charged for the expenses incurred.
The board also agreed with the Grand Jury finding that there is no clear way for homeowners to know if their property taxes pay for fire protection services.
The board added, “The allocation of property taxes to fire departments varies greatly across the more than 200 different tax rate areas in Plumas.”
The Grand Jury report called for the county tax collector to itemize the property tax amount allocated for fire protection for each resident’s tax statement, with the name of the district providing firefighting services or a note that service was not funded.
The supervisors agreed that information would be helpful but added, “Providing such information is cost-prohibitive.”
“There are changes in tax rate areas every year, and it is not feasible to attempt to customize existing software to incorporate information on tax rate areas or to update that information annually.”
The board continued, “Information on tax rate areas and the allocation of property taxes to special district will be available online,” as part of the county’s new website.
The supervisors disagreed with the Grand Jury’s finding that no organization in the county could “disclose with certainty” whether a parcel was located in a fire district.
The board said the planning department could provide that information.
The supervisors disagreed with the Grand Jury’s argument that county government leaders “have been approving land development without adequate fire fighting services.”
The board said the last “significant development” approved was Grizzly Ranch and “conditions of approval included annexation into an existing fire district, construction of a new fire station, and purchase of an additional fire engine.”
The board addressed smaller projects such as the Feather River Inn.
The developer has been “required to obtain fire protection” while smaller subdivisions have been approved “based on the fire protection standards in the current general plan.” The supervisors’ response added those standards were being reviewed in the general plan update process.
The Grand Jury suggested the building department should require “written acknowledgement” of a parcel’s fire protection status from the property owner before building permits were approved.
It added all real estate agents should be required to disclose the information as well.
The supervisors agreed to pass those suggestions on to the general plan update consultant and working groups.
The board also acknowledged, “In the past, inadequate provisions were made for fire protection,” before requirements were increased “over the past decade.”
The supervisors disagreed with the Grand Jury’s suggestion new developments must obtain “a signed contract for fire protection services.”
The board said residents inside fire districts didn’t need contracts to receive services.
“Contracts are also an imperfect means of providing fire protection, since it is difficult to create a contract that will guarantee fire protection in perpetuity.”
The supervisors especially disagreed with the grand jury’s opinion the county had no other option but to “sue the state of California to obtain the same CalFire firefighting resources that neighboring counties enjoy.”
The board acknowledged CalFire and the Forest Service swap roles in Plumas County due to an old agreement, but said in counties where CalFire was more active, it had expensive contracts with counties and cities.
The board said Riverside County “spends over $100 million per year on its contract.”
“There is no free lunch when it comes to fire protection services, and Plumas County needs to pursue realistic options that take into account our low population density and limited financial resources.”