Hughson OKs forming fire tax district

HUGHSON -- City government and the Hughson Fire Protection District are talking to each other again and are moving forward with efforts to improve fire protection.

Monday night, the City Council unanimously approved a contract amendment with NBS Government Services to help form a fire assessment district. The firm has assisted the city with establishing special assessments in the past.

The new proposal differs from the Hughson Fire Protection District's attempt to increase its parcel tax districtwide, which property owners rejected in June. The city fire tax would be collected annually from homes in new subdivisions.

Initially, the assessment district would be incorporated in the development agreements for six residential subdivisions. The assessment district would expand as new projects are annexed, a city staff report says.

No one has said how much homeowners in those subdivisions would pay per year. City officials hope to have the funding mechanism in place by late this year or early 2008.

"This is working in the right direction," said Doug Humphreys, a board member for the Hughson Fire Protection District. "They are starting to recognize that if they continue with growth, they will have to help supplement the funding of the Fire Department."

The city and the Hughson fire district were not getting along after a series a rancorous meetings earlier this year.

Relations were further strained when, in July, the fire district board said its mostly volunteer force could not serve additional city growth. The fire district, which responds to fires and vehicle accidents in the city and surrounding area, has only two paid employees.

In August, the city responded by issuing an extensive request for fire district records and hired consultant Anthony Fink to evaluate the district's ability to provide fire protection.

In a preliminary report Sept. 24, Fink advised the council to lay the groundwork for an assessment district.

"Regardless of the outcome of his review, this is an obvious first step," said David Chase, city public works director.

Humphreys said the fire district is cooperating with the consultant's requests to pore over district records, including response times, financial statements and training logs.

Once the consultant is finished with his work, Fink will give a report to a joint meeting of the city and fire district.

City officials haven't said exactly how the money generated by the assessment district would be spent. That will be the subject of future council decisions, Chase said.

Humphreys said he expects the city to set standards for fire suppression in Hughson, and then the fire district will estimate what it will cost for personnel and equipment.

"The city will have control of the funding, but the Fire Department will remain autonomous," Humphreys said.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or 578-2321.