I have been a director on the board of Latrobe Fire Protection District since 1987. I, along with my wife, served as volunteers for about the first 15 years. In those days virtually the only qualifications to be a volunteer were a pulse and the ability to put the “wet stuff on the red stuff.”
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Those days have changed. However our budget has not. Safety mandates which, of course, are a good thing, have driven the cost of providing fire suppression and medical aid way beyond what we receive. Our volunteer base has dwindled, due to numerous factors, but in our case as much to changing demographics than anything. We are short on young able-bodied citizens with a lot of spare time on their hands.
So Latrobe is faced with a budget of less than $200,000 and 37 square miles to service, no means to generate more revenue and only a handful of people willing to do the job.
We have explored merging with neighboring districts several times in the past 20 years. It has always stalled due to the lack of revenue Latrobe receives — in our case about $0.04 out of each $100 of assessed value property tax. That was not a misprint. Four cents. Most districts receive $0.12 to $0.17. The reason for this inequity goes back to when the district was formed and the negotiations that took place at the time. That apparently sounded like sufficient money back then.
I can’t place the burden of correcting this on the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors. They also have a limited budget and too many mandates to service with those funds. They are faced with dwindling property tax revenue and higher costs for everything.
So we, the Latrobe Fire Board, have explored how to continue to protect our district. One option is to consolidate with a neighboring fire district. “Economies of scale;” the big box store can provide the same product for less than the mom-and-pop store can. Except that neighboring districts have budget issues of their own. Why would they subsidize service to other areas?
Then an interesting proposition was presented to Latrobe. Neighboring district Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District offers to provide the service and coverage we require and at our current budget. Why would they do that, you ask? The short answer is the state of California has crafted a tax shift policy that encouraged special districts to provide service to areas outside of their home county. By doing this it potentially saves the districts large chunks of their budget from being confiscated by the state for other purposes. In the case of Sac Metro, merging with Latrobe would cost them a couple of hundred thousand and potentially save millions.
This option is not popular with our own El Dorado County Fire districts. The proverbial “elephant nose under the tent” comes to mind. It would allow Sac Metro to offer and compete for a wide range of services inside El Dorado County. Could a fire service provider from outside of our county bring something to the table? Maybe. Could it be the spoiler of harmony within our county? Maybe.
The opinions around this concept usually are based on, “Can we do this better with local control or central control?” That has been the test of our federal government for about 237 years now and intensely debated currently.
Whatever we the directors of Latrobe decide will be for the good of our district. These are our neighbors. These are our friends. They are our responsibility.
The dilemma facing Latrobe will probably play out in other districts in the near future. Where Latrobe goes from here could shape fire service inside El Dorado County in the future.
I don’t have an answer. And I’ll keep my opinion to myself.
Blain Stumpf is currently a director on the Latrobe Fire Protection District’s Board of Directors.