A special mail ballot election will be held on Tuesday, Aug. 30 regarding a special tax to help the Westport Fire Protection District cover the costs of fire protection and emergency response services, specifically to fund a daytime firefighter staffing program.
Passage - which needs a two-thirds majority - of Measure J would mean Westport could raise approximately $130,000 per year to fully staff the department.
The district has operated on a shoestring budget for decades in responding to fires, vehicle crashes and other emergencies in the rural area southwest of Ceres and northwest of Turlock. The district runs from Bystrum Road on the east to the San Joaquin River on the west, as far south as W. Monte Vista Avenue and north to Whitmore Avenue. Having not increased the $20 per home annual assessment since 1982, district officials say they need more operating funds, especially since volunteers are becoming difficult to find and pay is required to keep them around. Westport has 20 volunteers but since all but two live outside the district, at times there aren't enough to respond to emergencies.
"About the middle to the end of 2014 we lost seven personnel all at once to paid positions, and it really took a hit on our force," said Westport Fire Chief Chad Hackett. "So we were struggling to make calls."
He said from January 2015 to August of 2015, Westport was unable to respond to one out of seven calls for service, relying on neighboring agencies like Ceres, Turlock and Burbank-Paradise to provide mutual aid. The district issued a call for volunteers over a year ago with the mailing of 500 letters to area residents but it produced only one volunteer. To combat the manpower shortage, Westport decided in mid-2005 to offer stipends out of its reserves to staff the station during the critical day hours when the department was unable to respond. Westport now pays an engineer at $135 for a 12-hour shift, and a firefighter at $120, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
"The program has been extremely successful," said Hackett. "It's been in place now for a year but within that one year I think we missed one call during the daytime response only that we didn't have anybody there for. We're filled up about 98 percent of the time on the calendar. We just brought on some new people and that's getting us up to our 100 percent coverage."
Because the department has a sleeper program, Westport has enough firefighters on hand during evening and early morning hours.
Proposed in Measure J is a special property assessment of:
• $80 per residential unit, including mobile homes, per year, plus $2.50 per acre over a half-acre of residential property;
• $200 per ranch parcel and parcels with agricultural processing, plus $2.50 per acre over a half-acre;
• $100 per parcel used for goat dairies and feedlots, plus $2.50 per acre over a half-acre;
• $30 for vacant land;
• $300 per parcel in mobile home parks with 20 or less units;
• $600 per parcel in mobile home parks of 21 or more units;
• $2.50 per acre for non-residential parcels without a structure.
Measure J allows the Westport Fire District board of directors to keep up with inflation by increasing the assessment up to two percent annually by resolution.
Only those living within the Westport district may vote.
Westport farmers Wendel K. Trinkler, Jr., Kenny Galas, Rick Nutcher, John Barindelli and Jeff Lee, signed the ballot argument in favor of a "yes" vote. They note that the tax deals "with matters of public safety and life or death" which was "a big concern."
Hackett said if the tax measure is defeated, Westport will be forced to "go back to business the way it was before."
The tax measure has been explained at several town hall meetings, said Hackett.
Marked ballots must be returned no later than 8 p.m. on Election Day or postmarked on or before Election Day and received by elections officials no later than three days after the election, or in this case on Sept. 2. Ballots will be received at Stanislaus Animal Services Agency, 3647 Cornucopia Way, Ceres, or the Stanislaus County Elections Office, 1021 "I" Street, Suite 101, Modesto.