Inverness scopes tax for fire, drought preparedness

01/20/2021

The smoke from the Woodward Fire was still lingering in the air when a group of Inverness residents decided that the village’s immediate needs related to wildfire prevention and water storage would require a new funding source. In a survey launched this month, residents are weighing in on whether they would support a new parcel tax that the Inverness Association hopes to sponsor. 

“The biggest driver of this is climate change,” said Jerry Meral, who sits on the association’s board and had the idea for the tax. “Look, we have had almost no rain halfway through January, and that’s true throughout the whole Pacific Southwest, it’s not just Inverness. And so I think we need to be ready—to be ready with our water supply and to fight the fires we all know are getting more and more frequent. Now whether the Inverness voters share that view, I guess we will find out.” 

The Inverness Foundation, which shares a board with the association, is spearheading the initiative and wrote the survey. It outlines five possible projects that would make use of a new batch of funds, including a handful that would improve Inverness Public Utility District infrastructure to mitigate the impacts of drought. Another proposed project is to cover a third of the estimated cost of fuel control and ecological restoration on the federal and state lands immediately adjacent to Inverness, including in the Tomales Bay State Park and the Point Reyes National Seashore.

Should Inverness residents show support for the idea, a ballot measure could appear as early as August. The survey proposes two options for a parcel tax, with some exclusions for low-income residents. The first option, which would cost 20 cents per square foot and last for a decade, would mean the owner of a 1,700-square-foot house would pay $340 a year. The second, which would exact 30 cents per square foot for the same duration, would cost the same homeowner $510 per year.

The funds for water-related projects and some fire projects would go to the utility district, which manages the village’s water system and volunteer fire department with a budget of $1 million. 

In its survey, the Inverness Foundation lists creating an additional 100,000 gallons of water storage as a priority. IPUD, which pulls water from the streams and creeks that run down from the Inverness Ridge, has been hit hard by the current drought. The district has minimal storage capacity, turning over all the water in its existing storage tanks every three days.

After experiencing the driest year in its 40 years of water management, the district declared a water shortage emergency last summer. It has since rolled back some of the conservation measures after seeing a reduction in use and receiving some rain, but rainfall since last July is still only 38 percent of normal. 

The proposed additional 100,000 gallons in storage would amount to a 25 percent increase over IPUD’s current capacity. Wade Holland, the district’s customer services manager, said ideally Inverness should have a water storage capacity of a million gallons—far larger than its existing 440,000-gallon capacity. 

The Inverness Foundation also hopes the parcel tax could fund a new leak detection program and the replacement of leaking and aging infrastructure. The district currently estimates that around 15 to 20 percent of its water is lost in part due to tank and distribution system leaks, Mr. Holland said. 

There are 10 tanks in the system: Half are redwood, and they leak, and the other half are newer steel tanks. IPUD is in the process of replacing the two key tanks in the system with steel, with help from a state grant. 

The distribution system is also a mix of old and new. In the last four decades, IPUD has upgraded and replaced 60 percent of the system with PVC pipe; the rest was built with asbestos concrete before 1980. 

IPUD board members will discuss their opinions on the idea of a parcel tax on Feb. 24. 

The fourth project the parcel tax would target is the removal of dead and hazardous trees throughout Inverness. And lastly, the parcel tax proposes to cover a third of the estimated cost of fuel control and ecological restoration on the state and federal lands adjacent to Inverness. 

Kathy Hartzel, the board president of the Inverness Foundation, said new county wildfire initiatives—such as the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority, funded by Measure C—were promising, but it wasn’t enough. “The concept [for the parcel tax came up] because of the brutal truth that the funds for the needed fire protection measures—be they fuel reduction or work on an evacuation route or expanding water capacity or any number of things that fall into those categories—are not going to be coming down the pike to us in all likelihood through some of the measures providing funding,” she said. 

Marin County Fire recently allocated some of its Measure C monies to reestablish an overgrown fuel break that runs along the boundary between Seahaven and Tomales Bay State Park, but only committed to tackling roughly a third of the footprint. The hope is that having a source of local funds would help move projects such as the break higher up on priority lists for state and federal land managers.  

For Seahaven homeowner Gray Brechin, a historical geographer, completing the fuel break is essential. Mr. Brechin favors the higher, 30-cent parcel tax option.   

“In the short term, the fuel break must be completed from Tomales Bay to Sir Frances Drake before the next fire season,” he wrote to the Light. “If that means the community pooling capital to complete the work and waivers granted for it, so be it, because the need is urgent. In the longer term, Inverness needs a comprehensive plan to build and maintain the kind of fire levees that could be a model for the rest of the state. To do less risks losing everything we love about this place, including our lives.”

According to the survey, the 30-cent parcel tax would be able to cover the entirety, versus just a third, of the estimated funds for fuel control and ecological restoration on the lands adjacent to Inverness. 

Inverness resident Francine Allen is uncertain whether the tax is the right solution. She understands the financial burden for homeowners, and said that more information would help her make up her mind. 

“How did the [Inverness Foundation] come to this figure for a 10-year parcel tax? Is there a budget for how IPUD would spend this money? How are the priorities determined? Where is the oversight?" Ms. Allen asked. 

The foundation plans to publicize the results of the survey.