In the movie "Dirty Harry," Clint Eastwood famously pointed his gun at a suspect and said he couldn't remember if it was still loaded.
"Do you feel lucky?" he asked.
Guerneville area residents might ask themselves the same question, not about loaded firearms, but about fire protection and ambulance service.
The Russian River Fire Protection District responds to about 1,500 calls every year. To keep its fire station fully staffed on a 24-7 basis, the district is spending more than its annual revenue, and it's on pace to exhaust its reserves by the end of the 2011-12 budget year.
Measure F on the June 8 ballot would allow the district to maintain its current level of service and to start rebuilding its reserves. But if this parcel tax measure fails, staffing reductions will leave the station empty any time there's a call, and help will have to be summoned from another agency. In a rural area with a round-the-clock risk of fires, floods and accidents (in the water and on the roads), that's a big gamble.
Many people are justifiably skeptical about how their tax dollars are spent, but Russian River Fire Protection District directors have been both careful and innovative in their handling of public money. They have experimented with cost-saving measures such as sharing a chief with nearby fire districts, and they have kept pay and benefits, including pensions, well below the levels of other departments. The district's $40-a-year parcel tax is unchanged since 1980.
What's beyond the board's control is the countywide decline in property tax revenue, the district's primary source of income. Creation of the Russian River redevelopment zone also cut into the fire district's tax receipts. Revenue for this year is forecast at $1.3 million. But it costs $1.7 million to keep the station open and fully staffed (three firefighters per shift) on a full-time basis.
Measure F would increase the parcel tax to $140 a year for a standard residential property with levies ranging from $70-$350 a year for second units, undeveloped and agricultural land and industrial property. It would generate enough money to balance the budget and add $20,000 a year to the reserves. A two-thirds majority is required for approval.
A similar measure was defeated two years ago. This time there is no organized opposition, and some leading opponents of the 2008 proposal have endorsed Measure F. So do we.