OPINION: Why is the Fire/EMS tax so high?
For the past couple of years, there have been extensive discussions of how to best provide the Fire/EMS safety net that protects the treasured and oft visited Sonoma County Coast. The Bodega Bay Fire Protection District, the key provider for a long stretch of the area, has been a focal point in those discussions — in great part because the District has taken the initiative to explore and propose alternatives to the current, troubled system.
Central to the discussions is the fact that the citizens of Bodega Bay, through their Fire/EMS tax — which is one of the highest in the state — have been carrying the cost of protecting the non-residents and tourists who visit.
This tax is paid in addition to the area’s property tax. Why is the Fire/EMS tax so high? For two reasons:
First, the beneficial Sonoma County and State land use policies -- policies that create and nurture open space and conservation land use and state and county parks -- have severely reduced the Bodega Bay tax base; more than 50% of the land cannot be taxed at a rate sufficient to support the services it demands. On that land are high risk uses -- campgrounds, parks, cliffs, rocks, beaches, waterways, and scenic, dangerous roads and highways -- areas for which the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District provides the safety net.Second, as a post-Proposition 13 fire district Bodega Bay receives a very reduced share of the property tax generated in Bodega Bay. The assessed value of taxed property in Bodega Bay is around $810,000,000. Mind you, that’s the land that is left to tax -- the other 50%. From that tax, the county receives around $8,000,000.
What does the county send back to the District for the safety net? Less than 1% -- $255,000. That’s the impact of being a post-Prop 13 district. Were we a pre-13 district, like many around us, we’d get back more than 12% -- around $960,000. Where does the rest of our money go? To subsidize other county programs.
We have a property tax problem. We start with a smaller pie, restricted taxable land, and receive but a sliver of tax revenue it generates.
And, that’s but the start of the problem.
Now, add 4-5,000,000 tourist visits to the area -- tourists who rely on our safety net for protection -- and you begin to see the magnitude of the problem.
Many tourists are driven to the coast by a high power advertising program funded in great part by the TOT (Transient Occupancy Tax -- the tax levied on those who stay in an area).
Last year, the county collected more than $3,000,000 TOT in Bodega Bay. TOT is, perhaps, one of the most valid indicators of the impact tourists have on an area; it shows who is really there. Bodega Bay is one of the two most heavily tourist impacted areas in the county.
So, how much of that TOT comes back to Bodega Bay to protect the tourists from whom the money is taken? Almost none. Last year, less than $20,000 of the $3,000,000. And, it is not guaranteed. We have to compete for it each year.
So, who is paying to protect all of these visitors?
For the most part, the 1077 residents of Bodega Bay -- through our fire tax, which is one of the highest in the state.
It is the disproportionately high fire tax -- a tax driven by the fact that we have a restricted tax base, an unfair distribution of the tax moneys raised in the district, and an influx of non-residents to protect that has created the financial issues about which much has been written.
Those issues are the reason the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District has been working to create a sustainable funding base that will provide 24/7 all risk coverage, rapid response times, and sufficient redundancy to ensure that there is coverage should multiple incidents occur simultaneously.
Fire and emergency services -- no matter how provided -- are at a turning point. Some fire districts, like Bodega Bay -- with full time staff, have financial issues. Ours have been explained above.
Our brother and sister volunteer companies have issues, too. It has become increasingly difficult for them to attract volunteers. Be it a product of the economy where many earners need two jobs, reducing the amount of time they have to volunteer, the aging of the population, the movement of young people from rural to urban areas where the jobs are, or the limited supply of affordable housing in the coastal areas, it is harder to recruit and keep new volunteers.
And, that is why, despite the hurdles of time and tradition, we are all engaged in a dialogue to determine how we might all join together to best serve the communities in which we live.
Maybe, in another article, we will explore these issues in depth.It’s a discussion whose time has come.