This California firefighter nearly died. Then voters laid him off — in fight for lower taxes

Firefighter Scott Wager was battling a wildfire in rural El Dorado County this summer when he and his partner were unexpectedly surrounded by roaring flames and flying embers.

Wager and Capt. Chris Schwegler ran to their engine and got inside. The truck wouldn’t move. The cab filled with thick black smoke as it began to catch fire. Wager’s thoughts turned to his fiance and the baby girl she’s carrying.

“I thought about other firefighters that had been in that situation before that didn’t make it out,” he said, fighting back tears. “And I thought this was my time. I thought this was the end.”

Wager and Schwegler survived the fire — they ran through flames to a nearby field — but Wager’s job with the Garden Valley Fire Protection District did not.

After leaving the hospital, Wager learned a tax assessment to raise money for his rural fire department had failed. Layoffs were coming. Wagner’s own neighbors had voted it down; the votes were counted even as he was risking his life.

Wager’s story may be uncommonly dramatic, but the rejection of the fire tax is hardly unusual, even as wildfires have raged through California year after year, like the ones this fall that burned the vineyards of Sonoma County and threatened celebrity mansions in Brentwood.

Since last year’s devastating Camp Fire, lawmakers in Sacramento allocated $918 million for fire protection. Little of that money made its way to rural fire departments. They have struggled for years with inadequate staffing and lack of equipment, but voters in the fire-prone, rural communities remain reluctant to raise their own taxes to pay for them.

Ballot initiatives to raise taxes for struggling local fire departments like the one in Garden Valley are approved only about half the time.

The vote in El Dorado County also serves as a stark reminder that California is a divided state, despite its reputation as a liberal bastion. Many in the state’s foothill regions remain staunchly conservative and convinced that higher taxes won’t solve their problems. This, despite living in areas destined to burn — surrounded by dry, brittle forests.

“People don’t like to vote a tax upon themselves,” said Shasta Lake Mayor Greg Watkins, whose Shasta County community rejected two parcel taxes to fund its local fire department in 2018, including a vote just three months after a wildfire burned more than a thousand homes in neighboring Redding. “There’s a reluctance. You’ve got to have a pressing need.”

Watkins was among the hundreds of Shasta Lake residents evacuated during the Carr Fire in 2018. To him, higher taxes wouldn’t have made any difference when the Camp Fire destroyed the similarly wooded north state community of Paradise last year, killing 85 people in a matter of hours.

“There isn’t anything that would have stopped that,” he said. “More firefighters would not have stopped the Camp Fire.”

Why do fire taxes fail?

The story of why struggling, small fire districts need a super-majority of residents to raise taxes on themselves dates back to California’s anti-tax movement of the 1970s.

In 1978, voters approved Proposition 13, the state’s landmark property tax law. The constitutional amendment set a 1 percent cap on the amount local governments could collect from the assessed value of a home and land, and restricted increases to 2 percent a year. Another constitutional amendment passed by voters in 1996, Proposition 218, typically requires the approval of two-thirds of voters to pass special taxes to fund local agencies.

It’s a daunting threshold.

Across California between 2002 and 2018, 151 parcel tax increases went before voters to fund fire and emergency medical services. Seventy-seven of them didn’t pass, a 51 percent failure rate, according to the California Local Government Finance Almanac. During the same period, counties, cities and special districts passed parcel taxes to fund things like roads, libraries, hospitals and parks 54 percent of the time.

The fire-tax rejections often come in communities that have wildfire risks comparable to Paradise, which lost 10,000 homes a year ago to the state’s most destructive wildfire. For instance, voters in rural El Dorado County — home to some of the largest fires to ignite in California in recent decades — soundly rejected a parcel tax this year.

In late August, 62 percent of voters in the El Dorado County Fire Protection District, voted “no” for Measure B, which would have levied a $96 a year parcel tax on property owners. The $2.6 million that tax would have generated annually would have gone to fund additional firefighting positions to serve communities such as Apple Hill, Coloma, Placerville, Pollock Pines and Shingle Springs.

Crews look over the fire engine that Capt. Chris Schwegler and firefighter Scott Wagner had to abandon during the Country Fire in El Dorado County on Sept. 3. Jason Pierce

The locally influential Taxpayer Association of El Dorado County opposed the measure, saying it lacked oversight, financial safeguards and the money could be misspent in the future.

“While we don’t doubt the sincerity of today’s fire district leaders, an unrestricted pot of money will tempt future officials,” Bill George, the association’s president, wrote before the vote in a column in the local newspaper, The Mountain Democrat.

Fire district leaders acknowledge it’s a tough sell to raise taxes in conservative, rural areas where residents already feel as though they’re being taxed to death by California’s urban Democrats who substantially outnumber them. Along with skewing conservative, north state counties tend to have higher rates of retirees living on fixed incomes.

In the north state foothills, it’s common to see green and yellow State of Jefferson flags along the roads. Those signs and symbols represent a decades-old effort by activists to secede and form their own state made up of conservative southern Oregon and north-state counties.

These same regions protested when former Gov. Jerry Brown imposed an annual fee of up to $153 for each habitable building on nearly 800,000 rural properties to pay for the state’s firefighting agency. The fee was suspended in 2017 as part of a deal to extend the state’s cap-and-trade climate program.

“The homeowners in those areas have been bombarded with special taxes,” said Steve Kovacs, chief of the Scotts Valley Fire District and president of the Fire Districts Association of California. “Every two years at the major election cycles, there’s something or several items on the state ballot that’s raising taxes, or local initiatives that are raising taxes.”

“You’re competing with the city. You’re competing with the county. You’re competing with the state. You’re competing with the Legislature, and you’re competing with the voters. You’re competing with the schools.”

A jet drops a load of fire retardant near Highway 50 at the King Fire in El Dorado County near Pollock Pines in September 2014. Randy Pench Sacramento Bee file

‘The ultimate sacrifice’

In 2015, the Shasta Lake Fire Protection District, which has 10 employees, sent lay off notices to three firefighters and couldn’t fill another open position. The department later received a two-year federal grant that allowed the agency to stay fully staffed, but the grant expires in February.

The two failed parcel taxes would have prevented the firefighters from being laid off, district officials said.

As he chopped wood outside his Shasta Lake home on a recent afternoon, Bert Linfestey said he voted for the second tax, but not the first. He said he was confused by the first measure because he assumed the money would go to the city’s general fund to pay for things like sculptures or other unnecessary city projects.

But he voted “yes” the second time, once he learned the district was separate from the city and the money would fund fire protection.

“You can kind of see where we’re at,” he said, gesturing to the dry, brush-covered hillsides behind his home. ”A fire comes through here, they’re our first line of defense.”

In the brown, oak-covered Sierra foothills of Garden Valley, Sarah Fennell cited similar reasons for why she supported the tax increase that would have kept Wager, the firefighter who nearly burned to death, employed. She knows any day during the summer and fall her community is vulnerable to a wildfire.

The local fire department, while small, helps keep her safe, she said.

“I think we should support our local firefighters to help us to survive,” she said, standing outside her home down a quiet dirt road not far from the station.

But 54 percent of her neighboring property owners didn’t share her views.

“They’re already overpaid, and they’re burning their fire trucks parking too close to fires,” said one man, who declined to give his name before driving away in a tan pickup.

The assessment would have levied an additional $71 to $182 annual fee on each parcel in the district. The $400,000 in revenue would have allowed the district to keep two firefighters on duty 24 hours a day, said Chief Clive Savacool.

With the three layoffs pending, the district is in talks to consolidate with neighboring fire departments to save costs, Savacool said.

Wager, who is still working until the funds run out, is sending out job applications.

For him, the worst part of his ordeal was learning that his neighbors didn’t think his more than 10 years of service was worth paying for.

“The day after I laid my life on the line and almost made the ultimate sacrifice for this community,” he said, “I was told that my services were no longer needed... (And it) was worth less than 50 cents a day to this community.”

Scott Wager of the Garden Valley Fire District risked his life fighting the Country Fire in early September when the fire engine he was driving caught fire. He learned following day that his position in the department was being eliminated after area residents voted down additional funding for the district. Photographed Oct, 17, 2019. Jason Pierce

Struggling rural fire departments

For much of California’s modern history, small rural fire departments were almost entirely staffed by volunteers.

A year after voters passed Proposition 13, the California Legislature passed a law that essentially froze in place the share each local government collected from property taxes. Having volunteers on staff kept rural fire departments’ expenses low, so their piece of the local tax pie was relatively small.

Over the decades, though, the responsibilities expected of local fire districts have grown, and their share of local tax revenues hasn’t kept pace.

Volunteer firefighters are now required to have the same level of training as a full-time employee. With fewer people willing to jump the hurdles necessary to respond to medical and fire calls, it’s meant small fire agencies are more reliant on full-time employees.

The Legislature began redirecting money from fire departments to schools starting in the early 1990s, said Kovacs, the president of the state fire districts association. Add on California’s intensive and expensive requirements for running a local government — pension obligations, administrative duties, bookkeeping and legal costs — and many small fire departments struggle to make ends meet.

When small rural fire districts face inevitable budget shortfalls, their options are limited by propositions 13 and 218. Short of cutting services, disbanding or consolidating with other fire companies, they can seek limited local, state, federal funds or grants, or they can go to local voters and hope 66 percent of them agree to raise their property taxes.

Proposition 218 does allow for local governments to attempt a complicated process to raise taxes for what are known as “special benefit” assessments, which required mere majority approval.

That’s what Garden Valley’s fire department tried and failed to pass even with the lower threshold.

“Proposition 13 was the answer at that time and has been very, very good for the taxpayer. There’s no doubt,” Kovacs said. “But it has hurt the fire service in the state of California. .... We can no longer continue to do business with that type of a tax formula with all of the regulations and requirements that are put on us through those mandates from the federal, state and local level.”

But modifying Proposition 13 to increase revenue for local governments has time and again proven to be a non-starter. The same goes for changing Proposition 218.

Every few years, efforts have failed to modify the state’s Constitution to shrink the two-thirds voter requirement for parcel tax measures down to 55 percent, a threshold that many meet even as they fail to pass. That included an effort in the Legislature this year to approve language that would go before voters to modify the state’s constitution to adopt 55 percent to approve local taxes.

Fresno Sheriff’s deputies, left, and El Dorado County search and rescue teams look for a body on West Park Drive in Magalia in November 2018 after the Camp Fire destroyed homes in the area. Hector Amezcua Sacramento Bee file

The bill, authored by Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, failed to advance off the Assembly floor, though it could come up for another vote next year. Its sponsors include building trades and the California Professional Firefighters unions.

Aguiar-Curry acknowledged she has some work to do to convince moderate Democrats in vulnerable swing districts to vote for a measure that could make it easier to raise taxes on their constituents.

“It’s a lot to do with brand new legislators that are frightened to take a tough vote, and (who are) being threatened by their community,” she said. “I gave them a pass this time, but next time I’m going to be a little more vocal, saying, ‘You were voted in. You’ve got to take some risks. And this is what your job is.’”

Building trust with voters

Not every fire district fails at getting voters to raise their taxes.

Voters in at least three Northern California fire districts approved parcel tax measures to pass this year. Two were in the Placer County communities of Foresthill and Placer Hills. One of the measures passed after two attempts failed the previous two years. The measures prevented a fire station from closing and allowed another to reopen, said Kirk Kushen, who serves as chief of both fire districts.

Another was in the community of Lakeport, which was evacuated last year during the Mendocino Complex of fires. At 459,123 acres, it was the largest fire in California’s modern history.

The voters in Lake County, one of the poorest in California, agreed to raise their taxes by an overwhelming 74 percent margin to keep firefighters from being laid off because “they love their fire department,” and the fire protection and the medical services it provides, said Don Davidson, director of the Lakeport Fire District.

“I don’t like taxes either. I’m just like the next guy,” Davidson said. “But we don’t mind paying taxes, so long as they see what their money’s going to. So long as it’s guaranteed to go to that, you know? Some of these gas taxes we’re paying and stuff, you know up here in Lake County, we don’t see that money.“

Michael Coleman, a fiscal policy advisor who runs the California Local Government Finance Almanac, said the fire districts that tend to be more successful at getting local taxes passed are the ones that have the best relationships with their communities, so voters know their money will be well spent.

“The way these things get passed is people go down to the firehouse for the bean feed or the barbecue, and they get to know the firefighters,” Coleman said. “One of the things about local government is that when you’re close to the services, and they affect you directly, that kind of connection can build a better understanding and trust and convince people.”

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