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Local News

Montecito Fire Department Looks for Override to Fund Services

Special election ensures local tax revenue for operations, personnel and a new Sheffield Drive fire station

Montecito residents will vote on a measure to fund the Montecito Fire Protection District in a special mail-in election on July 13.

Approval of Measure M2010 would override Proposition 4, a 1979 state law approved by 74 percent of California voters that caps public agencies’ budgets to the amount they spent the previous year with upward adjustments for changes in population and cost of living. Without it, the Fire District could lose as much as 58 percent of its funding, said district spokeswoman Geri Ventura.

The Fire District holds the special election every four years and the measure overwhelmingly passed the last three times with more than 95 percent voter approval, according to the Santa Barbara County elections division’s Web site.

“If we did lose this override we would be in very bad trouble,” said Roy Jensen, president of the district’s board of directors. “We just want to stay the way we are.”

The Fire District collected $12.4 million in taxes for the 2008-09 fiscal year, Ventura said.

At a time when public agencies are tightening their budgets, some urge that the revenue be used for other pressing needs. As a localized property tax collected by Santa Barbara County, however, these funds can only be used for the Fire District.

“It’s not something that has the option to go to Montecito Union School or Cold Spring School,” Ventura said.

Among other services, the override allows the district to replace damaged equipment and train for urban search and rescues, said John Venable, the district’s board secretary.

“It’s really important for everyone to approve this so we can continue to operate the services that we do,” he said.

If the override fails, the district’s resulting budget crunch could mean the firing of several firefighters and pushing back plans to build a third fire station, on Sheffield Drive, Venable said.

“We are just asking the general public: do you approve of how we are spending?” he said.

Even with a budget of more than $12 million, the Fire District had limited resources when faced with the 2008 Tea Fire, said Sam Frye, president of the Montecito Emergency Response and Recovery Action Group, or MERRAG.

“In a wildfire situation like that, it’s never enough no matter what you have,” he said.

MERRAG, which supports the measure, operates as an adjunct to the Fire District by providing residents with information and direction during emergencies, Frye said.

“It’s really critical that we keep the level of service that we already have,” he said.

Frye said he fears the prospect of losing emergency personnel because he believes having 12 firefighters on duty isn’t enough, he said.

Diane Pannkuk, a former board member of the Montecito Association, supports the measure because of its immediate impact on Montecito residents.

“This is one instance where we can actually get something for our tax dollars and we certainly don’t want to get rid of that,” she said.

Pannkuk sees the measure as a simple issue because it maintains the Fire District’s current operations without adding or increasing taxes.

“Without it they drop down to being like every other department in the state,” she said.

The Montecito Firefighters Association identified the district’s public alert systems as being on the chopping block in a flier it distributed to residents.

Such systems include a low-power broadcast radio station that is useful during power outages and wildfires to inform and provide evacuation orders to residents, said Michael Ditmore, executive vice-president of the Santa Barbara Amateur Radio Club.

The Fire District’s administration is also interested in implementing a home radio alert system, Venable said. The district would sell clock radios that would provide residents with audio and text alerts during emergencies, he said.

The clock radios would cost about $100, said Frye, who has tested the system in his home.

“It sounds like a great idea but the difficulty is trying to get everyone to buy these radios,” Ditmore said.

Another shortcoming of this type of communication is that it is only one-way and doesn’t help residents who need emergency services but don’t have access to a working phone, he said.

Block captains from the Eucalyptus Hill Homeowners Association and MERRAG members are trained by the Amateur Radio Club to use short-wave radios to communicate when phone networks are overloaded, Ditmore said.

“It’s one of the great fallacies that the government is going to take care of you,” he said. “They can’t.”

Noozhawk intern Daniel Langhorne will be a junior at Chapman University in the fall and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). He is the nephew of retired Montecito Fire Department Fire Marshall James Langhorne.

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