Dense fog

Rift in Bodega Bay over tax measure for fire services

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.

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