Jack Durham, Mad River Union / Friday, July 7, 2017 @ 12:19 p.m. / Local Government
THE SPIT GROWS UP: Peninsula Community Services District Takes Another Step Toward the Ballot
Described by a supporter as bold and innovative, a plan
to create a new government and save a fire department on the Samoa
Peninsula is moving forward and will likely appear on the November
The formation of a new Peninsula Community Services District overcame another hurdle June 28 during a protest hearing held by the Samoa Peninsula Fire Protection District, which is spearheading the effort.
In order to kill the proposal, opponents would have had to submit 212 protest letters to the fire district, an amount representing more than 50 percent of the voters in Samoa, Fairhaven and Finn Town. But only four protest letters were received, compared to 16 letters of support that were submitted.
The proposal will now go before the Local Agency Formation Commission July 10, followed by the Board of Supervisors on July 18. Supervisors will decide whether to put the issue on the Nov. 7 ballot.
If approved by a majority of voters, the new services district would serve the entire peninsula south of the Samoa Bridge except for the Bureau of Land Management property at the southern tip of the spit. The district would take over water service on the peninsula, and be responsible for a new sewer system being developed for the town of Samoa. It would also have recreation powers and could expand parks and offer rec programs if funding is available.
One of the driving forces behind the creation of a services district is to save and improve the Samoa fire department, which has struggled financially. Troy Nicolini, president of the fire district board, explained the department’s predicament during presentation June 28 at Humboldt Bay Harbor Working Group meeting held at the historic Samoa Cookhouse.
‘It’s been a struggle’
decades, two pulp mills operated on the Samoa Peninsula. Besides
helping subsidize water costs for Humboldt County’s major
metropolitan areas, the mills also supported the Samoa Peninsula Fire
Protection District, both financially and by allowing pulp mill
workers to serve as volunteer firefighters and leave work when
emergency calls came in. But in 2008, the last pulp mill closed.
“We’ve been in a financial spiral ever since,” Nicolini said. “It’s been a struggle.”
The district, Nicolini said in an interview, runs a deficit of about $5,000 a year, money which comes from reserves it built up during better times.
“We’re kind of hanging on,” Nicolini said.
The bare-bones fire department has no paid staff, just 12 volunteer firefighters, most of whom have jobs outside the community.
This poses a problem, because these volunteers are not available during the day to respond to emergency calls.
The solution to this problem, Nicolini explained, is to cross-train the employees of the new services district as firefighters.
The district manager, sewer and water operators and others working for the district would double as firefighters.
The district is expected to be similar in size to the Manila Community Services District, which has 350 ratepayers and three and half employees. The Peninsula Community Services District would probably have similar staffing.
Nicolini said the solution is somewhat unorthodox. “In some ways, it is a bold decision. It’s uncharted territory here.”
The fire district considered alternatives before landing on the idea of a services district.
One option was to have either the Arcata Fire Protection District or Humboldt Bay Fire take over the peninsula district. Nicolini said he talked to representatives of those fire districts multiple times over the years, and they all respectfully declined.
“We are far enough from other metropolitan centers around the bay – Arcata and Eureka – so that fire service agencies in those regions really don’t want to come this far to provide medical aid or fire services because it draws them too far from their tax base,” Nicolini said.
Another option was to simply close down the fire department and dissolve the district. If this happened, Samoa, Finn Town and Fairhaven would come under the jurisdiction of CalFire. (Nearby Manila is part of the Arcata Fire Protection District.) The problem with this option is that residents would pay more but get less.
“Everybody’s rates triple, from $40 per house to $150, and our service level goes down dramatically,” said Nicolini, who noted that the nearest CalFire stations are in Trinidad and Fortuna.
“It’s a bleak scenario,” he said.
“So what do we do? We put our pants back on” and began coming up with a plan to save the fire department.
“We looked for bold, innovative solutions to make this thing work.” Nicolini said.
If voters approve the creation of a services district in November, the new district will replace the existing fire district.
“We’re basically going to build the framework of a [services district] and then we’re only going to add services as the fee structure is in place to pay for those services,” he explained.
The future of the district somewhat hinges on plans to develop the town of Samoa. Once a company town serving a lumber mill, the community is owned by the Samoa Pacific Group, which plans to eventually subdivide the properties into individual lots, which the company could then sell off. The Samoa Pacific Group also plans to further develop the area with additional homes.
In May, the Samoa Pacific Group received approval from the Humboldt County Planning Commission to construct 80 units of affordable housing in Samoa.
Construction may begin next year, depending on financing. The fire department, however, serves more than just the residents that live there. The peninsula is home to an active industrial area, as well as vast stretches of beaches and dunes, the Humboldt Bay jetty, a small airport and drag racing strip.
Nicolini said that about 35 percent of calls are visitor related. “We’re talking shark attacks. We’re talking falling on the jetties and breaking legs, rolling quads, crashing small ultra-light planes. You name it, we get it out there on the spit,” he said.
Jack Durham is editor of the Mad River Union. Subscribe here.