By MARY CALLAHAN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
These are disagreeable times for the seaside community of Bodega Bay, a tight-knit village now bitterly divided over a proposed tax increase for fire services on the April 8 ballot.
The town’s residents, who are already taxed at a higher rate for local fire service than most others in Sonoma County, are caught between two unappealing choices as the special election looms.
Measure A, if approved by the required two-thirds margin, would oblige most homeowners, who already pay $524 annually, to pony up an additional $200 a year to avoid layoffs at the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District.
District officials say the cuts would reduce staffing by one-third, taking the district from three firefighters on duty at an given time to two.
At stake, supporters of the new tax say, is nothing less than the health and safety of local townsfolk and the millions of tourists who pass through on Highway 1 each year. The district already suffers from inadequate staffing levels, they say. Having even fewer personnel would jeopardize the public and put responders at greater risk, they say.
“The idea of picking up the phone and saying, ‘Send help’ – the prospect of that help being right there is going to be questionable,” fire district board member Charlie Bone said.
But opponents say the community’s residents, many with modest or fixed incomes, can no longer subsidize tourists and others who live outside the district. Combined with visitors, people from outside Bodega Bay are responsible for nearly two-thirds of the district’s calls, most of them medical.
“In our way of thinking, we’re providing insurance for them, and they aren’t having to pay any premium,” said Barbara McElhiney, a 20-year member of the board until she was swept from office along with two other incumbents last fall. “The premiums are being paid by us.”
The debate has intensified in recent weeks, dividing neighbors and business owners who make up the town’s 887 voters.
Measure A supporters say former district board members, informed years ago of the agency’s looming fiscal cliff, failed to address the problem then. Now some of those former officials are only making matters worse with their opposition to the tax measure, their critics say.
Opponents accuse the firefighters’ union of looking out for their own. Union officials have responded, issuing a public letter with a pledge not to seek raises from the revenue raised by Measure A.
Each side charges the other with dirty politics: Opponents claim the district and its firefighters are using “scare tactics” and “intimidation” to sway the electorate; supporters accuse some opponents of deceptive campaigning, or offering solutions that aren’t viable.
The tenor of the discussion “is getting worse by the hour,” said former district board member Maggie Briare, who was among those who lost re-election bids last fall.
There is consensus on at least one point in the debate: Most say it is time for the county, which collects sales tax and about $1.3 million annually in hotel bed taxes generated by area tourists, to step in and help.
How much financial assistance might come from the county is unclear. Previous efforts to secure permanent funding from county have been unsuccessful.
The election reflects growing consternation around Sonoma County and elsewhere about how to fund rural fire services. Many agencies once sustained largely by volunteers are coming up short in recruitment.
Rising costs for both paid and volunteer forces compound the problem.
In Bodega Bay, the expense has been borne by a steadily shrinking population. The 2010 census reported 1,077 residents, down from 1,423 in the 2000 census. The drop in taxpayer numbers has forced the town to grapple with a new reality — that it can’t support the level of service to which it is accustomed without some new revenue source or district restructuring.
The district suffers in large part because it was created after California voters in 1978 approved the statewide property tax reform measure known as Proposition 13, which means the agency is entitled to a much smaller share of county property taxes than older districts get.
And though the district encompasses about 36 square miles, its advanced life support ambulance ranges up and down the coast, as well as inland, covering an estimated 220 square miles, most of whose inhabitants don’t pay the district tax.
Thirty-nine percent of the district’s total 494 calls last year involved incidents outside the district, officials said. Thirty percent of those that were inside the district involved non-residents. Many require time-consuming transports to inland hospitals, taking the ambulance out of use for hours at a time.
Some opponents thus argue they already are at risk of needing help when little or none is available.
“We still have vulnerability either way,” said McElhiney, the former board member. “We have vulnerability with the tax and without the tax.”
In addition, the district only collects 37 percent on its ambulance billings because of limits on Medicare, Medi-Cal and personal insurance reimbursements, according to Fire Chief Sean Grinnell.
“That is perceived as totally unfair to the residents who are paying the taxes, and for the most part it is,” said Constance Clover, the district’s new board president.
Many in the district eye hotel bed taxes, used mostly to market Sonoma County to tourists, as an appropriate revenue source to aid fire services.
In an unprecedented step, the Board of Supervisors in 2011 approved $100,000 out of the county’s hotel bed tax revenue to help the struggling district. The county added a total of $95,000 over the next two years out of the same pot of money, for equipment purchases only.
But Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose west county district includes Bodega Bay, said the county would not single out the district for such regular assistance when many other local fire agencies are facing similar financial pressure.
“I’m well aware of the challenges that not only this district is facing but really the complexity that other entities are facing throughout the county,” Carrillo said
The district’s overall budget exceeds $1.9 million this year, Grinnell said. Property owners pay about $1.1 million, he said.
The election comes against the backdrop of a hotly contested November election in which voters turned out three incumbents on the five-member board, contributing to the rancor that has colored the dueling campaigns over Measure A.
Class divisions have opened up in some quarters, with some opponents arguing that the yearly $200 at issue represents merely a spa day or a golf outing for higher-income residents in the Bodega Harbour subdivision, where “Yes on A” signs are more prevalent than elsewhere.
“Flat taxation works quite well for the affluent, and Measure A has broad support on the wealthy side of town,” said Salmon Creek-area resident Jim Reinders, who opposes the new tax.
“No one knew how nasty this was going to get,” said attorney Steve Herzberg, a district supporter who favors the tax. “I’m stunned.”