Calif. voters to consider 8 tax measures for EMS services

The increased tax would help provide general service and ALS and limit EMS dependence on the general budget


By Megan Hansen
The Marin Independent Journal

MARIN COUNTY, Calif. — As Central Marin voters gear up for the November election, they will have to consider whether to support eight different tax measures continuing financial support for paramedic services.

Residents in Corte Madera, Fairfax, Larkspur, Ross, San Anselmo, Sleepy Hollow, Kentfield and parts of unincorporated Marin will have to weigh the importance of having fast emergency response times versus seeing fewer charges on their property tax bills.

In Corte Madera, voters will consider renewing a paramedic and emergency services tax that was first approved in 1983. If two-thirds of the town's voters pass Measure I, residents will continue to be charged an annual fee of $75 per residence and per 1,000 square feet of floor area for nonresidential uses for the next four years through June 30, 2019. Voters last approved continuing the tax measure in November 2011. It is set to expire June 30, 2015.

Corte Madera fire Chief Roger Sprehn said funds provided by the tax measure are of vast importance.

"It's a significant portion of our emergency medical service budget and helps provide advanced life support ambulance service in town and in the surrounding areas," Sprehn said. "Without it, the cost of it would draw from other budget items, so it would increase our dependence on the general taxes."

The paramedic tax measures in Fairfax, Measure K; Larkspur, Measure L; Ross, Measure M; San Anselmo, Measure N; Sleepy Hollow, Measure S; and Kentfield, Measure Q; are all exactly the same. Measure P, which applies to the county's Service Area No. 27, is also the same.

These seven tax measures ask voters to pay a fee of $57 in the first year, with a $6 increase each year thereafter to a maximum of $75 per residence and per 1,500 square feet of floor area for nonresidential uses for the next four years. Each measure must be passed by a two-thirds vote.

Under these tax measures, each of the seven communities — which are part of the Ross Valley Paramedic Authority — would raise their current paramedic tax from $51.50 to $57 in the first year, followed by the $6 annual increase through 2019.

Thomas Finn, director with the Sleepy Hollow Fire Protection District and Ross Valley Paramedic Authority board member, said the slight monetary increase is worth keeping response times short.

"We think the increase is well justified and very reasonable under the circumstances," Finn said. "Sleepy Hollow is at the far end of the Ross Valley Paramedic Authority service area so we have a keen interest in the quality and responsiveness of our paramedic service."

But not everyone is pleased with the idea of renewing and increasing the emergency services tax. Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans, a group of about 15 Marin residents focused on post-employment benefits, has submitted arguments against the measures.

Michael Lotito, one of the founding members of the pension group, said Marin residents are "being taxed to death" and shouldn't approve any special taxes or increases.

"We believe that these essential services are being crowded out as a result of increased pension liabilities," Lotito said. "We're not criticizing the underlying need, but we think that has to be paid for through core government funding."

Lotito said government agencies need to realize they can't go to the citizens every time they need more money. He said his group is trying to get municipalities to address increasing pension liabilities.

"We're trying to send a message to all of the legislative bodies that this is something they are going to have to pay a lot more attention to," Lotito said.

Jody Morales of San Rafael, founder of Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans, agreed.

"Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans decided a few months ago to urge people to vote no on all taxes and hopefully force the governments into making some pension reform changes," Morales said. "We want them to implement all the tools the Public Employees' Pension Reform Act (of 2013) gave them and support the Reed initiative in 2016."

San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and a handful of other city leaders across California are pursuing a pension reform constitutional amendment for 2016. The initiative would give government agencies the authority to negotiate changes to existing employees' pension or retiree health care benefits on a strictly going-forward basis.

Marin County Fire Chief Jason Weber said he doesn't see the correlation between pension reform and the paramedic tax measures. Without the Ross Valley Paramedic Joint Powers Authority, he said costs would escalate because all of the agencies share services. Instead of working together, each municipality would have to hire more people and pension costs would escalate because of the additional working bodies.

"The problem would be if one area's taxpayers choose not to pass it, that agency would have to augment that funding from another source. That would comprise another area of their service or fracture the Joint Powers Authority and become more expensive for every agency," Weber said.

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©2014 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)

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