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Rural Voters Reject Fire District Measure

The Oakdale Rural Fire Protection District knew they were fighting an uphill battle but bad timing, and tough economic conditions capsized the ill-fated Measure Q at the polls resulting in a resounding failure for the struggling district.

Only 32 percent of district voters participated in the mail-in ballot but of those, 71 percent voted against the proposed measure that would’ve provided additional revenue, improved service and correct an inflation shortfall that previous measures didn’t.

Measure Q would’ve replaced and repealed the existing Measure M that rural residents pay for fire service, which voters approved in 2005.

The proposed measure would’ve cost residents $380 per dwelling unit annually, with an additional 7 cents per square foot.

ORFD board president Gary Hampton admitted, the timing couldn’t have been worse to come at people with additional expenses.

“How do you ask people to pay more when they are laid off, furloughed and don’t know what the future holds for them?” he acknowledged.

But the district couldn’t wait for better timing. The clock is ticking and the district’s budget remains $50,000 short of what they need to make ends meet. The only option was to bite the bullet and appeal to the residents to approve a new measure via a special election.

In spite of doing what they could to educate district residents through community outreach, which included knocking on doors, sending special mailers, and townhall meetings, residents simply couldn’t get on board.

“It was a big disappointment given the time and effort put in by board members and the grassroots movement,” Hampton said. “We went door-to-door to 2,400 properties out of 6,000 properties. It was a really good effort.”

Currently, the district is running one fire station, one engine and two personnel to cover a large swath of land, running calls that vary from vehicle accidents to medical aid with the Stanislaus River coursing through its jurisdiction.

“We get that we were hamstrung by the coronavirus, the majority of the 6,400 property owners, 14,000 residents in the district, they have no idea what a fire district is, when it was formed and how it works,” Hampton said. “Most people wrote this off as the government wanting more money.”

Now that the measure has failed, the fire board has to make some tough decisions that property owners may find uncomfortable.

“So where do we go from here?” Hampton asked. “We have 18 months to make sure that we can sustain fire service in the district with the revenue that we have.”

Hampton said, what the residents may not realize is that the measure failure means they will have to accept less service.

“We’re going to create options and take our lead from the residents but the question we’ll be asking will be, where should we cut services?” he said. “More fire service has to be voted on, less fire service doesn’t.”

Once the COVID 19 restrictions are lifted, the district plans to schedule more townhall meetings to bring the residents together to discuss their cut-back options.

“I have no doubt that once we explain to the residents how this is going to work going forward with less revenue, they’ll want to hold another special election to put another measure on the ballot but we don’t have the money,” Hampton said. “That’s not an option. We had one shot.”

The measure failure will impact the 2021-2022 fiscal year.

The County Board of Supervisors has no legal responsibility to provide funding or assume responsibility for fire districts — placing the burden of fire safety squarely on the shoulders of district residents.

The special district also doesn’t receive sales tax funds from Oakdale City.