Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District Chief Kurt P. Henke made the right decision to pull the tax hike proposal, at least for the time being. As he told The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board on Wednesday, “Even if we win, we lose.”
Ballots were supposed to go out next week. Henke and his political advisers believed they could have won the election. But the proposed assessment of $27.50 per year for the average homeowner faced numerous challenges, not the least of which was the district’s credibility. Metro Fire officials submitted incorrect salary and personnel data to the State Controller’s Office last month, overstating salaries paid to firefighters. Even when Metro Fire corrected the mistake, the figures still showed the median wage was $122,193, this as the district prepared to ask property owners to dig deeper.
Taxpayer and consumer groups pushed back, questioning the transparency of the process leading up to the ballot. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association threatened to sue the district.
“The argument became it was a spending problem not a revenue problem,” Henke said. He made the decision to halt the campaign on Tuesday.
It was the right call. People need to trust in the agencies doing the asking. Metro Fire, known for exorbitant pay, has cut expenses and salaries in recent years. But the organization, which serves 650,000 people in Sacramento and Placer counties, hasn’t earned that trust.
Henke recognizes that, for which he deserves credit. For one thing, the stakes just aren’t high enough to hit people, who still are recovering from the years-long economic downturn, with a tax that would generate an additional $12 million a year to what now is a $160 million budget. Sacramento County took a big hit in the Great Recession. People lost jobs. Many lost their homes. And governments, too, lost revenue and had to make the same kinds of tough decisions that residents did.
In addition, the district budget, which is primarily funded from property tax revenue, doesn’t seem to be faring all that poorly. Property tax revenue is rebounding from the pre-recession years.
Without the added tax, the district expects a $2 million shortfall for the fiscal year starting July 1. What that means is that two ladder trucks will be mothballed in May 2015 because the grant paying for the teams will run out. No one will be laid off, mind you; the district just won’t backfill as many positions when people leave or retire.
In fact, the bulk of the money that would have been raised by the tax was slated to open six new fire companies with a goal of reducing the average response time of just over 6 minutes to 4 minutes. That’s an admirable goal.
Henke said people haven’t given Metro Fire enough credit for making cuts in labor costs, including a wage freeze, greater employee pension contributions, and a cap on health benefits. This is to the district’s credit. If these cuts are substantial, they should provide the chief with ample evidence of frugality for a future try at the assessment.
We’re not opposed to new taxes, particularly when they are used for important services such as public safety. But people have to have faith that their hard-earned dollars will be put to good use.