El Dorado Hills Fire Chief Dave Roberts said his phone blew up following a debate between Auditor Controller Joe Harn and challenger Mike Owen last week, during which Owen accused Harn of favoring the El Dorado Hills Fire Department by giving the district more tax revenue than other El Dorado County fire districts.
“The Auditor-Controller does have discretion over how the districts are funded and how the taxes are passed out. For instance, why does Mosquito have absolutely no money for the fire (district) out there and El Dorado Hills is able to build a $6 million fire station?” Owen said. “That’s Auditor-Controller stuff guys and that’s just not cool so that’s another thing we’ve got to fix.”
However, Harn pointed out, the Auditor-Controller’s Office does not dictate how much tax revenue each special district receives.
“It’s set by AB8, which is a very bad law … passed in 1979 by the Legislature to react to Proposition 13,” Harn explained. “The Auditor-Controller has no discretion about how much property taxes El Dorado Hills Fire, Mosquito Fire or the Los Rios Community College District gets, no discretion at all.”
Referring to Owen’s comments at the May 7 debate, Chief Roberts said, “It’s almost like he doesn’t understand how things work.”
In a follow-up call, Owen said El Dorado County’s rural fire districts are severely underfunded — a matter on which he and Harn agree — and said, if elected, he would do what he could to influence the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors to get the money to the areas that he said need the resources.
“The edges of the county that are heavily forested are going to burn a lot faster that Serrano,” Owen said. “We have to share resources.”
El Dorado Hills Fire has mutual aid agreements with the county’s rural fire districts and responds when called. But, Chief Roberts said, even if the supervisors could, shifting money around isn’t a good idea.
“Don’t under-fund one district to fund another underfunded district,” Roberts said. “That just doesn’t make sense.
“It’s not a fact of we get too much,’” he continued. “It’s that they (rural fire districts) don’t get enough.”
El Dorado Hills Fire currently serves about 45,000 residents in approximately 45 square miles.
In 1979 El Dorado Hills fire officials, knowing that significant growth was coming to the area, negotiated a AB tax rate of 17 cents per dollar, according to Roberts. Some of the smaller, rural fire districts that relied solely on volunteers didn’t have that foresight, several receive less than 5 cents per dollar, and ran into trouble when their calls for service and populations increased but the AB8 funding did not.
“Unfortunately, that’s hard to change,” Roberts said.
Fire districts took a property tax funding cut when ERAF shaved off 10 percent in the early 1990s. Soon after, voters approved Proposition 172 to replace the lost public safety funding; however, Roberts noted, the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors designated that money for law enforcement.
El Dorado County’s Aid to Fire followed, keeping many small districts afloat, but that ended in 2011. Since then, the county has provided funding patches while districts work out their next moves.
El Dorado Hills Fire is in the process of annexing the Latrobe Fire District, which covers about 45 square miles and serves approximately 2,200 residents. This action will reopen AB8 rate negotiations. That discussion will come to the Board of Supervisors sometime this year and the board must vote on the new rate. Mosquito, Garden Valley and Georgetown fire districts are considering a “functional consolidation,” possibly sharing payroll, training and purchasing.
Roberts also belongs to a fire officials group that continues to look for new and creative ways to ensure El Dorado County’s residents get the best fire protection services possible.
Living in the Bay Area during the Oakland Fire, Owen said he’s seen what happens when fire districts don’t have enough resources and he doesn’t want that repeated in El Dorado County. He also said small districts are burdened by additional costs like paying for Workers’ Compensation insurance for volunteers — a cost he attributed to Harn.
But Harn said he doesn’t have the authority to require fire districts to have the insurance, explaining, “Volunteer firefighters have always been covered by Workers’ Compensation.”
According to information on the ClaimWire, a Workers’ Compensation resource website, fire departments can contract with the State Compensation Insurance Fund or private insurers to provide that insurance for volunteers.
The Auditor-Controller also said he’s not opposed to giving rural fire districts more money but, “It shouldn’t come at the expense of El Dorado Hills.”