Fire Fee: Mr. Bill Bate

A quiet bang

At the beginning of the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, a soft spoken man from Calpine named Bill Bate stood at the podium and explained very clearly to the Board why the recently imposed "fire fee" for Fire District One was not legal. The Board looked at Mr. Bate as though he had made a bad smell, but no one said much, except for the Chair, who thanked him.

Mr. Bate discovered, and showed this reporter, bylaws requiring the Fire Commission to notice meetings where public fees are involved. He had further, very specific, criticism of the methodology used to determine the fee.

The fee, approved by the Board of Supervisors 20 January, 2009 imposes an increase of $3.56 per square foot on any building requiring a building permit. See the ordinance here.

This newspaper has joined many other local residents to protest that fee, because it is not a fair assessment, it will discourage people on the local economy from building, and it places the funds in the hands of the fire commissioner. All together, it is bad public policy. Better ideas are out there.

But District One Fire Commissioner Bill Copren had no better ideas when the Fire Commission passed the plan and forwarded it to the Board of Supervisors, not for discussion, but simply for approval. His rationale was that "they do it in Nevada County" and he also insisted that at the fire commission meetings "no one spoke against it." No one spoke against it because no one knew about it.

The Board of Supervisors had no better idea when they approved the fee, though a number of people stood at the Board meeting and spoke against it. The plan, which was concocted in the dark, was rushed into being by the Board through the protests of local people because it pushed the problem off their plate.

Many ways toward no change: a fire district primer

Now that Bill Bate has put forth his objection, it is possible nothing will happen. The meat of his protest is a lack of proper notice, which has become a very powerful legal tool to insist on government accountability.

The network of laws governing the fire district starts with the Bergeson Fire District Act. This act essentially allows fire districts to act as independent governments, creating law and imposing fees pretty much without a by-your-leave from the governed, unless they pass a "tax," which needs the consent of the people (prop 218). To attempt to raise these fees, the Fire Commission used the "mitigation fee act" which you can read here. Fire commissioners can insist on building codes, and they can treat the people in their districts differently if they create special zones. However, in each instance, there has to be sufficient opportunity for public comment.

In Sierra County the commissioners are elected, and can be voted out, if someone will run against them. In other areas, though, fire commissioners are appointed, and accountability is further removed. The Bergeson Act, and other state laws, describe how the special fire district can make money. It is clear, in each instance, that public participation is important.

Public participation

Like many such committees and commissions, meetings are generally not well attended unless someone has a complaint. The biggest part of any government act is public participation.

Mr. Bate asserts that the commission didn’t properly notice the hearings it held. The Fire Commission has to follow the Brown Act, which provides for "transparency" in public activities; it insures that we get to see what government is doing with our money and our lives. But, even if the Brown Act was violated, all that might happen is that the fire commissioners would meet again, and come up with the same plan, and send it to the Board who would might again try to approve it.

This time, though, people will know about it, and the commissioners and the Board of Supervisors will have to pass it in the face of strong resistance.

Figuring fees

Mr. Bate also questions the methodology used to arrive at the $3.56 per square foot fee. In private conversation Mr. Bate said, "the square foot is the worst way to do it, because it charges the same for $500,000 home as for a barn." He discovered that Commissioner Bill Copren’s numbers counted only houses and significant buildings, and not barns with electricity and water. However, those barns would actually have to pay the fee. This confuses the fee schedule process in a way that was never clarified.

The point about barns and garages was always open to interpretation, with Bill Copren telling the gallery on 20 January that barns didn’t count, but with Tim Beals clarifying that, if they had electricity, they would have to pay the fee.

Bottom Line

Mr. Bate makes several very good points: the Prospect will pitch in on this one: the process requires public participation. It is expected that the County Council will respond that the Board of Supervisors did appropriately notice the new ordinance even though the Fire Commission probably did not. Mr. Bate logically indicates in private conversation that the product the commissioners sent to the Board was flawed because of process failure, and Board notice did not remedy that over sight.

Whether the Fire Commission and the Board of Supervisors met the letter of the law or not, they failed on the spirit of the law. The fire fee was approved before most people even knew what it was about. When they did know, many came forward to complain. This is an indication that there wasn’t enough public notice, and that the approval was done in the face of public objection.

Bill Bate has suggested that a committee be formed to study more appropriate ways to pay for fire service. The Prospect agrees, and has already indicated the paper’s support not only for a committee to study fire suppression funding, but for a modest tax, provided the funds remained in control of the Board of Supervisors.

UPDATE: Just before publishing time the Prospect spoke with Board of Supervisors Chairperson Bill Nunes. Mr. Nunes declined to remark about Mr. Bate’s assertion regarding the fee, preferring to wait to hear from County Council James Curtis. However, Mr. Nunes expressed a willingness to work with Mr. Bate, and everyone in the community, to find an equitable way to fund fire protection. He suggested a committee to work with the Fire Commissioners to fund fire protection in all of Sierra County.

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