Fire officials pitch tax for wildfire prevention

David Briggs
A two-acre fire on a ranch above Highway 1, which was started by a generator placed in the grass, burned above the Marconi Conference Center last Friday.   
09/05/2019

Marin fire officials are making their rounds to the county’s 19 local fire agencies to pitch the case for a countywide wildfire prevention authority, outlining a proposed governance structure and annual funding plan. 

“The work that needs to be done to actually make a difference in how fires burn in Marin is significant,” battalion chief Christie Neill told directors of the Stinson Beach Fire Protection District last week. “A coordinated effort is critical.” 

The authority would be funded by an 11-cent per square foot parcel tax on property owners that voters likely will see on the March 3 ballot. The measure, estimated to raise around $20 million a year, would help the county prevent and prepare for a firestorm while easing the concerns of insurance providers that have caused homeowner insurance rates to skyrocket. To delegate seats on the authority’s 11-person board of directors, Marin would be split into five zones, with two elected officials representing each zone. West Marin would be represented by two elected officials appointed by the Board of Supervisors.

“I certainly will be pushing for balanced representation for those two West Marin seats,” said Supervisor Dennis Rodoni, who would like to personally hold one seat and give the second seat to someone from one of West Marin’s eight special districts.

The eleventh seat on the board would be shared by districts overseeing fire departments in Inverness, Bolinas, Stinson Beach, Kentfield, Marinwood and Muir Beach on rotating two-year terms. Kentfield would appoint the first representative, followed by Bolinas, Stinson Beach, Inverness, Marinwood and then Muir Beach. The rotation schedule could be modified if all six districts unanimously vote to do so at a public meeting.

County fire chief Jason Weber said Marin officials looked at other successful joint-powers authorities in the county to borrow their best features. A small board with shared seats would force consensus-making, he said.

“There was a lot of back and forth about how to create political balance, so we don’t have a big machine in the room that’s taking over,” he added.

The board chairs from the Stinson Beach and Bolinas Fire Protection Districts, Jim Ritchie and David Kimball, were hesitant to comment on the governance structure before their boards looked at the draft joint exercise-of-powers agreement, which is now circulating.

Still, Mr. Ritchie said he would support virtually any fund that helps with fire protection. “I hope there will be some objective way of deciding on how to spend this money,” he said. 

Mr. Kimball said his board plans to encourage the Bolinas community to look at the material and comment publicly at the fire protection district’s September meeting, when directors will vote on a resolution of support.

Once the county’s local fire agencies adopt resolutions supporting the initiative, the county fire department will present the Board of Supervisors with a resolution to place the measure on the March 3 ballot, where it will require a two-thirds vote to pass. 

Ms. Neill and Mr. Weber addressed the need for the authority to the boards of the Stinson and Bolinas Fire Protection Districts on Aug. 26, and to the Inverness Public Utility District board on Aug. 28. They painted a bleak picture of Marin’s wildfire prevention efforts to date.

During a hot and dry day, vast sections of West Marin could support flame lengths of over 11 feet, Ms. Neill said. As a result, insurance providers are declining to renew homeowner insurance policies.

According to the California Department of Insurance, insurer-initiated non-renewals across the state increased by 5 percent last year, with more non-renewals in fire-prone areas. Insurance commissioner Ricardo Lara warned governments in a statement last month that an inability to obtain insurance can create a domino effect for the local economy, affecting home sales and property taxes. 

“This data should be a wake-up call for state and local policymakers that without action to reduce the risk from extreme wildfires and preserve the insurance market, we could see communities unraveling,” he said.

The insurance fallout has forced many homeowners to resort to the California FAIR Plan, which covers less at a higher cost. 

Although insurance companies won’t discuss their strategies, Mr. Weber believes a countywide program can help to at least stabilize rates. “We need to engage those insurance companies, and show them the progress we’re making,” he said. “That was one of the driving factors here: if you have a 2,000-square-foot home and you were to invest $200 a year in this, does that potentially protect you over the long haul from insurance rates going up thousands of dollars?”

The need for coordinated fire prevention efforts was described in the county’s 2005 Community Wildfire Protection Plan and then further laid bare in the 2016 update to the plan, which provided a framework for future collaboration. That document identifies specific actions the county could take for fire protection. Mr. Weber said those efforts will require at least 10 years’ worth of work.

“Everyone is doing the best they can with what they have,” Ms. Neill said. “They are not staffed to deal with the issues, nor with the public demand.”

The need for collaboration was stressed further in 2018, in the “Lessons Learned from North Bay Fire Siege” analysis prepared by the county fire department. “The only thing separating Marin County from their neighbors north was simply an ignition source,” the report found.

The icing on the cake was a Marin civil grand jury report on wildfire preparedness that in April proposed the creation of a joint-powers authority funded by a sales tax. Instead, county supervisors opted for a parcel tax based on square footage after a voter opinion survey found that route was most favorable, with 75 percent support.

The approximately $20 million raised by the tax would go into three buckets. The first bucket would include $12 million for core functions, including a coordinated fire hazard reduction program implementing goat grazing, fuel breaks, pruning and prescriptive burns on top of work already being done. Other programs for wildfire detection, evacuation improvements, education and grants would be funded from this bucket. 

The second bucket would include $4 million for a defensible space management program. The authority would hire home inspectors, clear space around public infrastructure and on abandoned properties and offer grants to those who need help maintaining defensible space.

The last bucket reserves $4 million for local prevention efforts. “We’re asking local agencies to identify areas of concern and potential projects and let the [joint-powers authority] come in and develop a prescription,” Mr. Weber said. 

The authority would not exceed administrative costs over $2 million, he added: “It really forces that the money goes to work being done, and not salaries and overhead of lots of people.”