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Local fire districts disagree on TOT increase

January 27, 2014

Southern Inyo Fire Protection District in Tecopa is the largest district in California and has the smallest budget and staff, operating out of this small structure, its vehicles exposed to Eastern Sierra elements year round. A proposed one-percent increase in county bed tax would benefit SIFPD and the five other county fire districts. Photo by Nancy Good/Fine Art of Nancy Good & New Light Foto Design

A recent effort to put a Transient Occupancy Tax increase ballot measure before voters in June was abandoned due to non-support by several county supervisory boards. The increase was intended to benefit fire protection district services countywide.
Inyo County fire chiefs for the Southern Inyo, Lone Pine, Independence, Olancha, Big Pine and Bishop fire districts met on Jan. 23 to decide whether to place one-percent county TOT increase measure on the June 2014 primary supervisory election ballot, Bishop Fire Chief Ray Seguine said.
“In a discussion with the county, some boards wouldn’t support it,” he said, naming Bishop, Lone Pine and Independence. Seguine said those departments felt that a 1 percent increase wouldn’t provide enough revenue to support Emergency Medical Support services in the districts that need it. “Forty-thousand dollars isn’t even going to make a dent on the EMS side.” While Symons Ambulance Service provides EMS service in the Bishop area, the other districts are not so fortunate, the fire chief added.
At the Jan. 23 meeting, the county decided it was “not in the best interest of the fire districts” to increase TOT, Seguine said. The fire protection districts, each of which has “taxing authority, will need to look for other revenue sources” to pay for equipment, personnel training and protective gear, vehicle maintenance, as well as EMS services. “In 1974 a fire truck cost $75,000; now it costs half a million.”
Had such a measure been approved by at least two-thirds of the voting public, each of the six fire districts would have received roughly $40,000 annually, Bishop Rural Fire Protection District Commission Board Chairman Robert Winzenread said. “We totally understand that it would be a benefit to the smaller districts (however) we are neither for nor against.” Seguine first presented the fire chiefs’ concept at the Dec. 5 Commission meeting and at its Jan. 2 meeting, the commission took a “position of non-support.”
At the beginning of the month, Winzenread gave several reasons for this decision, saying that, as yet, “there are no clear answers about how the money would be spent or how it would affect each districts’ general fund.” Currently, districts are primarily funded through property taxes, he explained. Like property taxes, TOT is collected by the Inyo County tax collector and disbursed by the county auditor controller, said Auditor Controller Amy Shepherd. The wording of
the measure would dictate
how those funds would be disbursed.
Additionally, Winzenread said, “the board doesn’t want to burden our constituents with another tax when we’re still fighting the battle” to oppose the annual $150 CalFire Fire Prevention Benefit Fee which was enacted in July 2011.
However, Southern Inyo Fire Protection District Fire Chief Larry Levy said constituents would not be burdened by an increase in TOT, or bed tax, because it is paid by tourists and visitors when they stay at hotels and motels. County fire districts service this visiting population just as they do county residents. Visitors receive fire, ambulance and other services – motor vehicle accidents create “the highest percentage of cost in this district.”
TOT monies would have helped offset those costs, Levy said. Currently, the only way to recovery costs is through billing tourists and visitors and “historically, there’s a fairly low recovery rate.”
Furthermore, SIFPD Administrator Carl Dennett said, over the last five years the district’s annual $180,000 operating budget has been slashed to $84,000 to due the loss of property tax income as private properties have reverted to a “big non-profit.” At 1,200 square miles, “we have the largest district in the state and the lowest budget and least personnel.”
TOT monies would “literally be a life saver,” Dennett said. Currently, SIFPD operates out of a tiny structure – vehicles and equipment are kept outdoors, vulnerable to harsh elements year round, he added.
How Inyo County fire districts will remedy such circumstances is, like the abandoned TOT increase concept, up in the air for now. An increase in parcel tax would bring in much more revenue than the TOT increase, Seguine said, but with CalFire Fire Prevention Benefit Fee, “the boards feel it would be a hard sell. The districts will have to try to do other things.”

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