Fire Fee: who is "who"?

Fire Fee:

Who is "who" and what is fair and in the end what unintended consequences do we want?

Tuesday’s (3.3.09) grueling Board of Supervisors meeting has given us a chance to do something better than the developer fee to provide for our emergency services.

The "developer" fee sounds like a great idea, and it is that idea that Supervisor Lee Adams spoke to at the meeting. Lee made reference to "who," as in "who will be paying it." He also spoke of fairness, because it doesn’t seem fair that people who are coming should arrive to enjoy facilities that he, and others, have been paying taxes to support all these years.

I’m here to say that Lee Adams is no fool, but he’s also not a critical social analyst. I’d like to take a crack at "who" is going to pay the fee, because the unintended consequences of this ordinance will effect people who will be made invisible by it.

First, the issue of "fairness."

The idea that it is fair to make one class of people pay a lump sum for services other people paid for over time is flawed in that the new people are paying for something that happened before they came to enjoy the services. People who paid for years got services for years. Further, the only way the "buy in" idea is fair is if one subscribes to the "I got mine" school of thought. Otherwise, one looks at things with the long view: the people who paid taxes in the old days will pass away, leaving a legacy of services for those who come after to care for and invest in, over time. The "developer fee" isn’t really fair. It does work in places where a developer comes in, does a subdivision, and pays for a firehouse in or near the subdivision with the fees. We don’t have a lot of those here, we have something else, which leads to "who."

The people this will hurt the most aren’t some imagined "new comers" who need to be charged an admission fee to join the county. A lot of people who build here are local people. The best examples are families who want to build a house on family land so the kids can stay close, and older people who want to hand the big house over to kids and spend some pleasant days in a little house out back. Ranchers and farmers and anyone who might want to build industrial warehouses or buildings for light industry (see "Alexander letter" HERE). A lot of these folks have also paid taxes in Sierra County for years.

Anybody who lives on the local economy will be less likely to afford a house or building. The cost of building is already stupidly high, thanks to over regulation and the pernicious influence of corporations over the Uniform Building Code (but, that’s another story.)

If the developer fee goes into effect, some local people won’t apply for a building permit, and so, they’ll be invisible, because it’s hard to track someone not doing something. Maybe they’ll be invisible because they’ll move away to someplace where the economy will let a family afford a house.

The other unintended (we hope unintended) consequence is that it will encourage wealthy people (mostly from somewhere else) to build, and here’s why:

First, this per square foot fee is a great deal for them. They can spend a million bucks to build a 1500 square foot mini mansion and pay the same price as a local family that hauls in a manufactured home of 1500 square feet. The rich folks get a lot more protection for their money than the local family, since they pay the same fee for protection over a much bigger investment.

Second, $3.56 is almost half of minimum wage, and it’s a quarter of what a lot of local people make an hour. To those of us on the local economy, that’s a lot of money. To someone with bucks, it’s less than they paid their designer, it’s pocket change.

Lee Adams didn’t say "who" would pay, but we got the idea it was cheaters of some kind, by which some of us might mean wealthy folks from somewhere’s else. This bad social policy becomes self-fulfilling prophecy when only the rich can afford to build here.

There is another problem with the developer fee: it won’t raise money if no one is building. Milt Holstrum, Tim Butler, Bob Macy and other contractors are against this fee, but that doesn’t make them a special interest, it means they understand what the fee will do: it won’t be the local people they serve who will be building. Far from being special interest, these are local experts in trends in building. Bill Bate and these other folks point out another very serious flaw with the fire fee: it won’t bring in any money, because no one is building.

Nor am I a special interest. My family has had land here for nearly 50 years, we’ve paid a lot of taxes and asked nothing from the county. Wanting to put a house on family land doesn’t, or shouldn’t, make me special. We aren’t rich, we have to scrape to get by like most people we know. What does this fee tell us and folks like us?

Being completely "I got mine" no growth, however is special interest. I’m not accusing anyone, but if the selfishness fits anyone, they should bear it.

Supervisor Adams left the detractors of the developer’s fee the challenge to produce a response from the residents that they don’t want this fee. I’d like to encourage people, no matter where they stand, to provide input to their supervisors, to the fire commissioner and to the famous Mr. Abbott. I’d like to encourage people to think about years to come, when they might try to build something in the county.

I’d like to join Bill Bate and other concerned people to find a better funding source, a better fee. The county needs to take care of emergency services for now and for the future. New property owners and new builders generate new value; the cost of services should be tied to value.

The Fire Commissioners wanted to exploit what they saw as a valuable planning resource in other counties. Bill Copren has said "this is the best plan" and there is reason to believe he knows something about it. It won’t be easy to find a better alternative to support our fire fighters and first responders, but we need to.

Email us at if you want more information. Email at to send a letter to the editor. Contact your local fire commissioner for direct information on Mr. Abbott.

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