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Ripon debates hot issue: Fire tax for district
Fire Engine

 Both the Ripon Consolidated Fire District and Bethany Home — the not-for-profit senior living facility urging the community to vote against the agency’s parcel tax next month — had their chance to make their case at a standing room only gathering at Ripon City Hall Tuesday night.
Now it’ll be up to the voters to decide whether to increase their annual assessment to the district by $125 to cover the costs of staffing the new River Road fire station paid for with redevelopment funds.
In a contentious, two-hour town hall format moderated by Ripon Chamber of Commerce Board President Leo Zuber, representatives from Bethany Home and the fire district were able to field audience questions pertaining to Measure A – the parcel tax that that as written will charge Bethany Home residents double the $125 annual fee that will be levied on single family residential units and apartments throughout the city.
And a big part of that back-and-forth centered on whether Bethany Home residents – all but those in the Chesapeake Landing senior apartments – would actually have to pay to the $250 every year while the rest of Ripon, if the parcel tax is approved, will pay half of that.
According to Ripon Consolidated Fire District Board President Bryce Perkins, the board made an offer to Bethany Home to relax the assessment – and passed a resolution outlining an equitable assessment that is universal – but was told that they would prefer that it be taken off of the ballot instead.
The June primary ballots in San Joaquin County have already been printed. Vote-by-mail ballots have already been distributed, meaning that the chance to take the assessment – with its original $250-per-year language – off the ballot has formally passed.
The discrepancy between the two agencies, according to Bethany Home Executive Director Cindy Scheublein, comes down to advice that the not-for-profit received from their legal counsel detailing how even though the fire board has agreed to uniformity across the board, supporting the measure would mean that a future board – or a future fire chief – could push for the maximum allotment under the approved law, since it is binding.
Because, according to Scheublein, nobody authorized to make decisions on behalf of Bethany Home was invited to participate in the citizens advisory commission until after the fire board had decided to move forward with the parcel tax, the non-profit was unable to offer their input or their concerns on the tax as drafted.
Perkins took issue with that characterization of how things transpired. He noted to the capacity crowd that somebody who identified themselves as a “manager” for Bethany Home was a participant in those meetings. All members of the board operated under the assumption that she was representing Bethany Home and relaying all notes of what transpired in the meetings back to Scheublein and other administrators. Perkins reiterated that when discussing the position of the person believed to be representing the senior community with Bethany Home Board President Henry Meester, he was told that the woman was being paid to attend the meetings – further solidifying what the fire board believed was a good-faith effort at bringing everybody to the table during discussions about how best to proceed.
“Why it’s needed”
At the center of the debate over the parcel tax is the city’s newest fire station on River Road. According to Fire Chief Dennis Bitters, the parcel tax would provide the district, which relies on a 1985 tax assessment and a 4.4 percent share of property tax revenue on houses sold in Ripon, with the funding necessary to staff the district’s newest station, which was built with money left over from the redevelopment fund when the statewide program was shuttered by Sacramento lawmakers.
Currently, without that station manned by full-time fire personnel, the district only has four firefighters and a senior officer on duty at any given time – two on an engine, two in the ambulance and one in a support vehicle. Because of the way in which fire personnel are dispatched, the possibility exists that the two engine firefighters could be called out to a structure fire somewhere in Ripon and per the regulations of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, would have to wait until two additional firefighters arrived on scene before they would be able to enter the structure to search for any victims – whether those responding firefighters be the two assigned to the ambulance, or a responding crew from a neighboring agency once a call for mutual aid is sent out.
The current recommendation for the number of firefighters responding to a structure fire within eight minutes, according to the district, is between 15 and 16, meaning that even if the parcel tax passes and the station is staffed full-time, the district would still only have half of the necessary personnel on duty to respond to achieve the best possible outcome for life and property.
And while there are anywhere from 25 to 35 volunteer firefighters that can respond when a call goes out, Bitters noted that only 5 or 6 of those firefighters live within the RCFD boundaries, and some come from as far away as San Jose to serve the community free of charge.
What all of that translates into, he said, is the possibility that if the parcel tax is not funded, the necessary response times for fire and emergency medical service calls could be outside of the appropriate window.
“If it doesn’t pass, it doesn’t change what we do in terms of our attitude – we’re still going to come just as hard as we always have,” Bitters said of the response. “But we may be going down a path where more times than not, that won’t be fast enough.”
Bitters, who noted that people often comment to him that he’s being dramatic because he measures everything in seconds and minutes instead of hours and days – since seconds and minutes can make the difference between life and death when responding to a call –  told the assembled public that timeliness is important for the best possible outcome, and without those personnel to operate another piece of apparatus that allows flexibility, Ripon residents would likely be relying on the hopes that outside agencies are available to come when called.
Dozens of questions
Over the course of more than two hours, representatives from Bethany Home and the RCFD answered dozens of questions for the public that were written onto comment cards and submitted to Zuber for him to read to the designated party.
While the atmosphere was, at some points, tense – like when Schueblein made the comment that she didn’t have the luxury of having as many as 35 registered nurses willing to step in and pick up the slack when it was necessary, viewed as a dig against the district for its roster of volunteer firefighters  – the question-and-answer portion of the meeting was able to operate without major interruption, save for two moments when Zuber had to remind the crowd to be quiet and not make comments to those who were sitting on the dais.
Bethany Home maintained that while the entire flap could have been avoided by simply making sure than authorized individual was present during preliminary discussions, but Perkins balked at that idea when calling out the accounting of Bethany Home, which claims that the parcel tax will represent a 600 percent increase to the amount they’re currently paying for the outstanding fire tax.
Voters will formally decide the fate of the parcel tax when they take to the polls on June 5. Because no taxpayer money can be spent to investigate or support a tax increase measure, RCFD had to rely on private donations – upwards of $10,000 – to qualify the measure for the ballot. If it fails, the worked measure – reflecting the across-the-board parcel tax as opposite to the lopsided one – could still be placed on the November General Election ballot, but the fees would likely have to be paid again.
Measure A requires a third thirds approval to go into effect.

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.