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  • Writer's pictureNaomi Friedland

Measure C: Belvedere residents will vote on spending the city’s fire tax

Updated: Feb 16

Belvedere residents will vote March 5 on whether the city can continue to spend property taxes that fund about half of its contract for fire and emergency services through the Tiburon Fire Protection District.

 

Known colloquially as the “fire tax,” the initiative, which will appear on this year’s ballot as Measure C, 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. If approved by a simple majority, the new measure would increase the spending limit from July 1 through June 30, 2028.

 

Jena Watson, chair of the Belvedere Fire Measure Renewal Committee and a member of the city’s Parks, Open Space and Lanes Committee, encouraged residents to vote “yes” on the measure, reiterating that for residents, the measure is “not additional funds that are coming out of their pockets.”

 


The committee, which wrote the ballot argument in favor of the measure, includes former mayors Tom Cromwell and James Campbell along with Planning Commission Chair Pat Carapiet and Belvedere-Tiburon Library Agency Chair Roxanne Richards.

 

There are no ballot arguments against the measure.

 

The Tiburon fire district gets emergency services through the Southern Marin Emergency Medical Paramedic System. While southern Tiburon residents live within the district’s boundaries and pay for fire and paramedic services on their property-tax bills, Belvedere is outside the boundaries and requires a service contract.

 

That’s been the case since 1980, when the city scrapped its all-volunteer fire department. The same year, voters approved a flat-rate parcel tax to pay for services, with a provision for modest annual increases based on cost-of-living adjustments and population changes. In 2000, voters overwhelmingly exceeded the two-thirds’ vote required for a one-time parcel-tax increase, with an escalator that allows the tax to increase by up to 4% each year and is signed off in a vote by the City Council.

 

The current tax rate is $994 per parcel, $1,131 per commercial structure and $199 per vacant parcel. If the council approves the full 4% increase for fiscal 2024-2025, which begins July 1, the rate would climb to about $1,034 per parcel, $1,176 per commercial structure and about $207 per vacant parcel.

 

If the council were to approve the 4% increase each year, the tax would be about $1,163 per parcel, $1,323 per commercial structure and $233 per vacant parcel by fiscal 2027-2028, when the budget-limit measure would come up on the ballot again.

 

Revenue from the tax is expected to be about $1.1 million this fiscal year, but the cost of providing services continues to rise, consistently outpacing revenues. The original tax paid for more than the entire contract, but that share dropped to 86% by 2000 and is 51% today, forcing Belvedere officials to dip into the general fund of the annual budget each year to make up the difference.



The total contract is estimated at $2.15 million — up about 27% from the $1.69 million contract four years ago — meaning the city budget will have to cover the gap of about $1.01 million this year.

 

Officials have warned this is unsustainable and could eventually require a new tax, cuts to other city services or both, while they have also explored the possibility of annexation.

 

The Tiburon fire district’s revenue — budgeted at $11.6 million in the current fiscal year — comes largely from property taxes, which are growing in Tiburon for the same reason they’re growing in Belvedere: consistently high home-sale prices and turnover create broadly high assessed property values. Like most public agencies, the fire district then spends what it collects — meaning Belvedere’s contract costs effectively grow with Tiburon property values.

 

Belvedere’s share of expenditures, however, remains roughly 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.

 

Tiburon’s Fire Chief Richard Pearce noted costs in the district continue to rise as it deals with inflation and allocates more money to its pension plan.

 

To read the full text of the measure, the city attorney’s analysis and the full argument in favor, see the county voter information guide mailed Jan. 25 or visit marinvotes.org.

 

Reach Belvedere, Strawberry and public-safety reporter Naomi Friedland at 415-944-4627.

 

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