Penny Pinching

Firefighter Erin Bigler does maintenance work at North Monterey County Fire Protection District’s Castroville fire house, on the oldest fire engine that’s from the late 1980s.

The oft-used saying, “elections have consequences,” has taken on real meaning for the board of directors of the North Monterey County Fire Protection District. Last November, the board asked residents to approve a tax that, if it had passed would have brought in $963,000 annually, just barely enough to backfill a $1 million annual state grant set to expire in February 2019. The measure, which required two-thirds of the vote to pass, only received 55 percent.

The interim chief at the time, Rich Hutchinson, theorizes a combination of bad fortune and timing – the measure was at the bottom of a long ballot during a contentious midterm election – triggered voter fatigue. Some North County residents may have given up before checking “yes” and approving the $39 annual tax for residential parcels. Vacant parcels would have been taxed at $63.75 a year and industrial properties at 10 cents per square foot.

The consequence: In order to balance the 2019-20 budget, the board laid off five firefighters as of July 1. It will also shutter one of three stations that serve the 125-square-mile district on July 1, 2020, unless a source of funding isn’t found soon. The board will most likely go back to the voters next year and try another tax measure.

It’s not just the $1 million state grant that expired. The district has been struggling financially for years ever since the property tax valuation of the former Dynegy plant in Moss Landing – now called Vistra Energy – was adjusted down, resulting in an $800,000 annual loss. The district depends wholly on property taxes to serve its 42,000 residents and field an annual average of 3,500 calls.

Fire trucks that should have been cycled out of daily use or retired altogether have remained on the road, Hutchinson says. Every method of saving money or bringing in more cash has been attempted. Between retirements earlier this year and the recent layoffs, the firefighting staff was reduced from 32 to 23. The district expects to save between $525,000-$550,000, but Hutchinson says it needs $1.25 million a year in additional revenue.

“Keeping the lights on is dictating these cuts to stay in business,” he says. And they aren’t the last cuts. If the district is not successful in finding substantial future funding, there could be five to seven more layoffs in addition to shuttering a station.

For now, district officials are talking to County Supervisor John Phillips, whose district includes North County, as well as county staff, to see if emergency funding can be found to bring back the five laid-off firefighters.

Hutchinson’s term ended June 30. Three division chiefs will rotate as chief over two years, rather than hiring a new chief to save more funds.

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Pam Marino joined the Monterey County Weekly in November 2016. She covers the communities of Carmel, Pacific Grove, Del Rey Oaks, Pebble Beach and North County. She also covers tourism, health, housing and homelessness, business and agriculture.

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