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Mendocino County fire districts to get cut of public safety tax

Mendocino County’s rural fire departments are set to receive a share of statewide public safety tax money that they contend should have been paid to them over the past 23 years.

The allocation is in motion after Mendocino County supervisors last week unanimously voted to give 21 local fire districts almost $400,000 of Proposition 172 funding in the next fiscal year. The county must calculate how to divide the money among the districts before the allocation becomes final.

Fire districts in Mendocino County and throughout the state, including Sonoma County, were excluded from receiving part of the 1990s-era measure’s proceeds and have been battling in recent years to get a share.

Fewer than 15 counties currently distribute those funds to their fire departments, said Jeff Gilbert, a California Firefighters Association director and chief of the Williams Fire Protection Authority. His department three years ago joined the lucky few.

Sonoma County recently agreed to spend a portion of the sales tax revenue on fire prevention.

The state firefighters association is working on legislation that would require all counties to give fire departments some of that sales tax revenue, Gilbert said.

“That was the intent when the bill was written,” said Matt Epstein, chief of the Valley Ford volunteer fire department and a member of the state organization’s board of directors.

The group noted that advertisements promoting passage of Prop. 172 in 1993 featured firefighters.

In Mendocino County, supervisors voted to exclude fire districts from the funding shortly after the measure passed and instead dedicated the money to the Sheriff’s Office, District Attorney’s Office, jail and probation department.

Last year in Mendocino County, that funding amounted to about $7 million. Statewide, the half-percent tax generates about $2.5 billion annually.

Fed up with the arrangement, a group of Mendocino County fire district officials last year asked the board to give them a share and drafted a ballot measure demanding to be included in the distribution of the sales tax. The ballot measure was dropped after a judge ruled the language was overreaching.

Meanwhile, the Board of Supervisors - apparently heeding the plea - directed two of its members to study the issue. Supervisors Dan Hamburg and Dan Gjerde authored the funding proposal that was approved by the full board on Tuesday.

“The Board of Supervisors understands the critical public safety role of local fire agencies and their need for additional funding,” Supervisor John McCowen said Friday of the change in policy.

Fire officials are happy to be included at last, but say additional funding will be needed to keep small rural fire districts alive.

“Things have changed; we can’t survive with chicken barbecues anymore,” said Jim Little, chief of the Laytonville volunteer fire department. “Somehow, we need to find a way to properly fund these services.”

Being a volunteer firefighter requires more ?time, training and equipment than ever before ?and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find people with the time or inclination to do the work, Little ?said.

It also is more difficult to find employers willing to give employees the necessary time off, he said.

Mendocino County officials have promised to work with fire districts to help them find additional funding sources.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter

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