Editor's note: This story originally ran in the March 11 edition of the Democrat, prior to the postponement of the April 7 municipal election. With the election now set to take place next June 2, the Democrat is re-running articles providing information about ballot measures that voters will decide on when they go to the polls next week.
Moniteau County voters will make a decision on the first tax levy increase in the history of the California Rural Fire Protection District in the upcoming June 2 election.
The District's current .20 cent tax levy has remained the same since it became a fire district in 1998 — previously known as the California Rural Fire Department, the department was first supported by an annual fee before it expanded into a fire district that today serves 25o square miles across Moniteau, Cooper and Cole counties. The tax levy proposed on the April ballot asks to raise the current levy to .80 cents for the purpose of helping to replace the CRFD's outdated fire trucks and equipment, along with bolstering its general operating revenue.
Representatives with the CRFD note while a tax increase is generally never a popular consideration, voters likely haven't realized just how much the price of the crucial equipment used by the Districts' 30 active volunteer firefighters has increased over the years, nor the jumps in technology that same equipment has undergone in the 20 years since a tax levy first passed in the county.
"There (are) standards out that we try to follow," CRFD chief Shawn Merrill said. "Basically, when a truck is 20 years old, we're supposed to get rid of it — it's obsolete now. Well, all of our trucks are over 20 years old With our budget, we can't afford it. Back in '98, you could buy a truck for $130,000. Now, that same truck is $500,000."
Merrill said the inflated prices for firefighting equipment come with better safety for the firefighters operating them and high efficiency when tackling fires for customers, so the increases in price do make sense. Unfortunately, Merrill said the District is just unable to keep up with them with its current budget.
"Anti-lock brakes (are an important safety feature) right now," Merrill said. "If our trucks don't have anti-lock brakes, we're not even supposed to run them. Well, most of our trucks don't. We just can't afford to replace them."
Such issues extend to other crucial equipment the CRFD is forced to run due to a lack of funding. The National Fire Protection Association's standards on hoses dictate they should be scrapped and replaced if they were made in 1990 or older — Merrill said there's still hose on CRFD trucks from 1960, since it costs $250,000 to replace. The bunker gear firefighters wear when fighting fires should be replaced every five to 10 years at a cost of $11,000 per person, as another example. Another part of the uniform, self-contained breathing apparatuses, should be replaced every 15 years at a cost of around $8,000. Even proper medical first responder training — since CRFD volunteers also respond to medical calls — can cost thousands the District is simply unable to afford reliably.
Merrill said the District is too small to receive most grants, but it does get some hand-me-downs from other larger departments nearby who tend to be the priority as far as grant funding is concerned. Merrill works as a full-time firefighter at Lake of the Ozarks as well, so he's able to leverage that connection to get older equipment that can help the District stay afloat but only just enough.
"With this budget, that's all we can do is just scrape by," Merrill said.
Shelly Hampton, who serves as secretary and treasurer for the CRFD, said last year's budget topped out at just north of $100,000, so a tax increase would see that budget balloon to a more serviceable $400,000 each year.
Such a drastic shift is crucial, Merrill said, because the District has added five stations — two in California, and one in each of McGirk, Clarksburg and Kliever — in the past 20 years, and serves 2,465 residents.
"We're running that on $100,000 right now, and we're falling behind," Hampton said.
Merrill said the District has done amazingly well despite its resources being limited to that of a typical dual-income family. With that in mind, the hope is that one strategy that has been in the works will help voters to find the proposed tax increase less daunting a choice to approve — the CRFD has been working to lower its Insurance Services Office (ISO) score by two points, which saves citizens in the District about $400 per household per year in insurance payments on average.
"We've been working on it for two years now to get everything in place to try and get this increase, and we're at the point now to maintain what we have and to try and move forward, to lower it a little more," Merrill said. "We need to get some better equipment and some better training. That, in turn, will let us lower (our ISO score) at least another point, which is another $200 in savings on their insurance."
Merrill said because of this, the tax increase — on paper — becomes less of a question of asking those served by the District to pay more than what they were paying, but rather kicking a bit of these newly-accrued savings back to the District.
That, in turn, can even have an effect on jurisdictions neighboring the CRFD like California's fire department, to which the District lends mutual aid to help respond to especially time-consuming fires within city limits, Merrill said.
"What people maybe don't understand is it doesn't really affect you directly, but indirectly it does," Merrill said. "Because if we can get some better equipment, it's going to help all of the departments around us that we (help with) mutual aid."
In the run-up to June, the CRFD has been working to publish information on social media to get the word out and has especially been reliant on going door-to-door visiting those they serve to help educate them about their scope of service and needs.
"We're going to try to (get to) as many of our patrons as we can and explain (things) to them, kind of give them an update as to where we're at and where we're heading," Hampton said. "I'm the treasurer, so I get to hear all the kickback about 'Well, where's the money going?' Whenever you get $100,000 and $30,000 of that goes towards insurance, and the other ($15,000) goes towards a (station) building that we had to put up, and then maintaining the trucks themselves, (it adds up)."
Merrill said when it comes down to it, there's a simple reason for voting yes in June: "To help us keep your community safe."