Volunteer Model Failing

by Malcolm Macdonald, March 16, 2016

At the March 9th meeting of the Albion Littleriver Fire Protection District (ALRFPD) Board, first year Board member Alan Taeger said, “The Volunteer Fire Department model is failing.”

The ALRFPD has been as vocal as any other among the Mendocino County Association of Fire Districts in asking/requesting/demanding their fair share of Prop 172 money.

Proposition 172 provided for a half cent sales tax to fund public safety agencies. For two decades the preponderance of those dollars has gone to law enforcement (from district attorney offices to county sheriff's officers to municipal police departments). Prop 172 funds amount to around two and a half billion dollars annually throughout California. Mendocino County receives approximately $7,000,000 every year from Prop 172. The Mendocino County Association of Fire Districts want just 20% of that seven million, about $1.4 million to spread among more than twenty fire departments. That's $65-66,000, on average, per department. Readers need be aware that a new fully equipped fire truck plus a fully equipped ambulance type vehicle will run you somewhere in the neighborhood of a half million bucks when fully paid off.

That consideration is a distinct reality in smaller districts (and many larger ones, for that matter) where the equipment infrastructure is woefully old. We're talking multiple decades in many cases, and when those pieces of equipment, including fire trucks, are in the shop for repairs,, emergency and fire calls do not stop coming in.

That's the obvious component of ALRFPD Board member Taeger's comment. First, a stone cold fact in Albion, Littleriver, and this county. Volunteer firefighters are an aging lot. Many are still on call well past the time Social Security checks start rolling in. Now for the dirty little secret behind the lack of younger volunteer firefighters on the Mendocino Coast, and particularly in the Albion-Littleriver District, the even colder fact that there is very little affordable housing available to young, working age volunteer firefighters. You know, the kind of folk that don't make hundreds of thousands annually on their marijuana crops. Alright, that's a bit cynical, but it's at least such a prevalent perception that one volunteer firefighter on the Mendocino Coast introduced himself to me a couple of years ago by first saying, “I don't grow marijuana for a living.”

Leaving that issue aside, housing has become such an overriding problem for the Albion-Littleriver Fire District that the ALRFPD Board drafted the following letter:

“We, the members of the Board of Directors of the Albion Little River Fire Protection District, wish to alert the residents of our District as well as our County Board of Supervisors about the grave impact the affordable housing crisis is having on our ability to provide Fire and Emergency Services to our residents.

“There is a critical shortage of affordable rentals in our District. Due to Airbnb, vacation rentals, unoccupied homes, or various market forces, there are less residences available. Rentals that are available are often priced beyond the means of our Volunteers. In recent years we have lost several young Firefighters due to these circumstances.

“This has an adverse impact on our ability to provide services to our residents. Our District invests several thousands of dollars in training only to see that investment disappear when a volunteer cannot stay in the area. It places greater responsibility on older volunteers and undermines the natural succession of young volunteers eventually becoming officers and leaders.

“It is an inefficient use of taxpayer money.

“We currently have two young Volunteers who are desperately struggling to find housing in our District. They want to stay here and serve the community that they have come to love. They may not be able to.

“We would like our residents to consider this situation when making decisions about possible rentals. Keeping young people in our community benefits all of us. It increases our level of public safety and insures a healthy future for our community when idealistic, community-minded young people are allowed to establish roots.

“We know that this situation is not unique to the ALRFPD. That is why we are bringing this to the attention of our County Board of Supervisors. This is a problem that needs to be solved collectively and we look to you for leadership and attention regarding this situation that increasingly plagues our District and our County.”

At their March 9th meeting the ALRFPD Board wanted the public to know that this is only a rough draft. Most, if not all, of the board members appeared to be in favor of a more strongly worded, forceful approach.

A quick search engine stroll on your computer will find vacation rentals in Littleriver for a cozy $269 per night. Have a slightly growing family, a three bedroom Albion Ridge retreat goes for about $800 for the weekend. When you note that an overnight Airbnb stay in a loft in Albion costs more than $80 you start to get the picture. One of the cheapest Airbnb experiences in the Albion-Littleriver area is an Airbnb for about $75 a night. It's at least partially owned by a slightly more settled member of the Albion-Littleriver Fire Department. Of course, at that particular Airbnb it is a thirty second walk to restroom amenities, so young firefighters are not exactly likely to take up permanent residence in such an abode.

Almost any reader is going to grasp part of the convoluted housing picture in Albion, Littleriver, or almost anywhere from the coast through Anderson Valley. Some housing is priced out of sight, some folks legitimately need to rent part or all of their residence to help make ends meet.

Throw in another complication: This is the first fiscal year that the Albion-Little River Fire Protection District is collecting tax money as a result of the passage of Measure M in 2014. A glance through the tax rolls for the Albion and Littleriver areas shows that there are several if not many property owners paying the ALRFPD tax on one dwelling when, in reality, there is more than one (and sometimes quite a few) houses/cabins/rentals on the property. Anybody want to wager on the likelihood of those property owners who are flying under the radar of both the county assessor's office as well as the Albion-Littleriver Fire Protection District, stepping forward with a reasonably priced rental for a young firefighter and family when doing so will draw attention to their (so far) untaxed additional dwellings?

(Malcolm Macdonald's website is: malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com)

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