As Santa Barbara County heads into fire season — with high winds and hot temps passing through town this week — officials have been trying to put out their own fire that’s been burning a hole in the county’s budget.
Capital needs are growing, staffing has been reduced, and on the heels of a report that says County Fire faces a $1.8-million deficit for this coming fiscal year to keep services at their current level, a gap that will grow to almost $15 million four years from now, the Board of Supervisors decided to shift money around to aid the ailing department in the form of an increased allocation of property tax revenue. The shift will provide a reliable funding stream for the Fire Department in the face of potential deficiencies.
Since the creation of the Santa Barbara County Fire Protection District, the department’s share of property tax revenue has been not only lower than adjacent counties but also below all other fire districts in the county. County Fire currently receives 11.97 percent of the property tax revenue. By comparison, Ventura County Fire receives 15.07 percent.
The board’s decision means the department will receive $5.9 million when the tax allocation is raised from 12 to 14 percent in July. Each year subsequent to that, the department will receive 17 percent of the chunk, plus 25 percent of property tax increments designated for the general fund.
The problem, of course, is that when money is given to one agency, it is taken from somewhere else. The somewhere else in this case is the other public safety departments — Sheriff, District Attorney, Public Defender. In exchange, that group worked out a deal where they will receive increased amounts of Proposition 172 money, while the Fire Department’s funding through Prop. 172 — which was passed in 1993 as a one-half-cent sales tax to provide funding for public safety agencies — would be cut down to zero. The Fire Department receives $2.7 million each year from Prop. 172, while one percent of property tax allocation is equal to about $2.5 million.
The supervisors decided to let the Fire Department keep one more year of funding from Prop. 172 money, despite a plea from Sheriff Bill Brown to make the total shift immediately. “Any delay you do will enrich the Fire Department but deprive all of us, as well,” he said.
Meanwhile, after much haranguing by Reps. Elton Gallegly and Lois Capps, along with rancher Willy Chamberlin, the Santa Maria Air Tanker Base has been reactivated to full-time alert status as of last week. Thus far, there have been no calls for duty, though a car fire by Soda Lake was almost enough to summon a tanker.
Aside from this good news, according to Jim Kunkle, who runs the base, was the fact that the base was also cleared for C-130s: big, four-engine turboprop military planes used for fighting wildland fires and run by a combination of National Guard and Forest Service personnel.
The Forest Service, meanwhile, is expected to be down to 11 air tankers across the nation, which could prove to be an issue should this fire season be an active one. At a meeting earlier this month, fire officials warned that the lack of rain during the winter months affected the fuel growing in the mountains, and that the area was 30 to 50 percent below the normal rainfall level. May and June are the months for sundowner winds, which are always eager to push a fire.