It happened just the way they said it would. Following the failure of Measure R in the March primary election, the Arcata Fire District almost immediately closed one of its three stations on a rotating basis — closing a different station every eight days — and cut eight staff positions. And Arcata Fire District (AFD) Chief Justin McDonald says it is “already apparent” that operating this way is just not working.
Right now the AFD has a total of 19 firefighters, McDonald told the Outpost — a skeleton crew of four on duty at a time. “A normal single story residential structure fire usually takes 14 firefighters to deal with all the requisite tasks to put the fire out,” McDonald said. “We’re missing 10.”
So the district is again asking voters to help fund operations by placing Measure F on the November ballot, which — like Measure R — would increase the Arcata Fire District special tax paid by property owners and needs a two-thirds vote to pass.
This is how much the new tax would cost property owners in addition to what they already pay. From AFD’s website:
- Vacant lots: $25 per year
- Mobile homes: $75 per year
- Single family residence: $98
- Rural improved (a property with a structure on it that is located at least 700 feet away from a fire hydrant): $162
- Multi-family residential with two to four units: $269
- Multi-family, five to nine units: $338
- Multi-family, 10 or more units: $405
- Commercial: $486
- Industrial: $810
- Retail over 10,000 square feet: $850 per year
Map of the Arcata Fire District boundaries and the McKinleyville, Mad River and Downtown Arcata Stations.
If Measure F passes, the district would use these funds to bring operations back to where they were before the failure of Measure R, filling eight frozen firefighter positions and restaffing and opening the third station. Remaining funding would go toward replacing and repairing aging vehicles and equipment and replenishing the district emergency reserve funds. You can view the district’s five-year plan for how they would spend this money, on the AFD website.
McDonald said that district is trying to release more clarifying information this time around, after hearing some of the negative community feedback about Measure R. Another thing McDonald kept hearing was that it seemed like only firefighters were pushing for the measure. Now roughly 30 community members have formed the Friends of Measure F group to help the campaign.
In addition to the community group, Arcata City Council unanimously endorsed the measure and during a recent Arcata City Council candidate forum, all of the participants ardently supported Measure F.
But the Humboldt County Taxpayers League is firmly against the measure. It says the tax increase is too high and the fire district has failed to consider the financial impact this would have on some residents, especially those who live on a fixed income.
President of the Taxpayers league Uri Driscoll told the Outpost that the district should not be placing this burden on the taxpayers, when people are facing financial insecurity amid COVID-19 and that, as unfortunate as it is, the fire district needs to make things work with what it has.
“There’s a lot of belt tightening going on and I just don’t think throwing more money at the problem is the solution,” Driscoll said in a phone interview Thursday. “I think passing this measure will not lead to any real solutions to the issue. They need to dig in and look at the systemic problems before we just throw more money at them. It’s a band-aid, and not a very effective band-aid.”
The Taxpayers League has tried to work with the AFD to come up with alternative solutions, Driscoll said, but he feels that the district has not been willing to consider its other options. One alternative the league has been pushing is the formation of a countywide fire district, which Driscoll says would help reduce costs.
Driscoll believes that too much of this tax will go toward salaries and says that the AFD’s ratio of chiefs and captains to regular firefighters is high. The AFD has two chief officers, eight captains, seven career firefighters and four volunteer fighters.
“You can’t probably say this any more, but it’s like too many chiefs and not enough Indians,” Driscoll told the Outpost.
Driscoll also feels that the district does not really need three stations to operate efficiently, especially considering that 95 percent of the calls the AFD responds to are not fires — or don’t turn out to be fires. Many of these calls could be responded to by other agencies, Driscoll said, and don’t require the dispatch of a fire engine.
Actual fires do, in fact, make up only about five percent of the AFD’s calls. The vast majority — about 46 percent last year — of responses are for medical emergencies and rescues. About 25 percent are service calls — things like assisting seniors who have fallen in their homes. Nearly 15 percent are “good intent calls,” people calling in smoke that turned out to not be a fire.
But the fact that firefighters aren’t spending all their time fighting fires is sort of a moot point, according to McDonald. The nature of a firefighter’s job is that they are on call 24/7, because no one knows when or where a fire will break out. “If you’re going to pay us to be here, wouldn’t you rather we be multitasking?” McDonald said.
McDonald does agree with Driscoll on one thing: That with the economic impacts of COVID-19, it does not seem like a great time to be asking folks to cough up more money for the district.
“We’re asking in a time when unemployment is going up and businesses are closing,” McDonald said. “I think the biggest thing is that I am all for people making an educated vote. Vote ‘yes,’ vote ‘no.’ But please, please do the research. I can give people information and answer questions and I’m all for that. I just want people to make an educated decision.”