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Belvedere will put measure on March ballot to continue funding city’s fire services

Belvedere residents will vote March 5 on whether the city can continue to spend collected property taxes that fund roughly half its contract for fire and emergency services.


 

The City Council voted 4-0, with Mayor Jim Lynch absent, at its Nov. 13 meeting to authorize a measure on the presidential primary ballot. Known colloquially as the “fire tax,” the initiative is neither a new tax nor an increase. The existing tax was approved by voters in a separate measure in 2000, and it never sunsets; however, every four years, residents must vote to allow the city to adjust its budget appropriations limit to keep spending the money it’s already collecting.

 

Voters last considered the measure in 2020, when it passed with 79% support. Approval of the new measure by a simple majority vote would allow the city to fund its fire-services contract through June 30, 2028, provided by the Tiburon Fire Protection District, which in turn gets emergency services through the Southern Marin Emergency Medical Paramedic System.

 

The city has been contracting the fire district’s services since 1980, when it swapped out its all-volunteer fire department; that same year, voters approved a flat-rate parcel tax to pay for the services, with the allowance for annual modest increases based on cost-of-living adjustments and population changes. In 2000, voters overwhelmingly surpassed the two-thirds’ vote required for a one-time parcel-tax increase, with an escalator that allows the tax to increase by as much as 4% each year and is signed off in a vote by the City Council.

 

The parcel-tax rate for fiscal 2023-2024 is $994 per parcel, $1,131 per commercial structure and $199 per vacant parcel.

 

The tax is expected to net the city about $1.1 million in fiscal 2024 — but the cost of providing services continues to rise, consistently outpacing revenue from the tax. The fire tax paid for more than the entire contract when it was initiated in 1980, but the resident share dropped to 86% in 2000 and is 51% today.

 

In fiscal 2024, the city expects to pay about $2.15 million for fire and emergency services, meaning it will need to cover the gap of about $1.01 million by dipping into its general fund; officials have said that’s money that could be going toward other city priorities, such as roads, parks or police staffing.

 

The costs of the contract have increased about 27% since fiscal 2020, when the city spent $1.69 million on fire and emergency services. Belvedere’s share of expenditures is proportional to the total occupancies served by the district, which at 21.7% tracks with Belvedere’s total share of service calls, an average 20.4% over the past five years.

 

The city earlier this year hired a polling firm to gauge whether residents might support a tax-increase measure to generate an additional $1 million in revenue per year to fund the entire cost directly, but officials ultimately decided to shelve those plans after early survey results showed resident support fell far short of the two-thirds’ majority needed to pass a new tax measure.

 

Just 48% indicated they would support an additional tax of $498 per parcel, for an additional $550,000 in revenue; fewer residents, 41%, were in favor of an additional $740 tax that would bring about $800,000 in revenue; and still fewer, 38%, were in favor of an additional $980 tax, for the needed $1 million in new revenue.

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