Voters in the Westport Fire Protection District overwhelmingly passed Measure J last week to raise taxes to support firefighting efforts in the rural area southwest of Ceres.
A total of 212 voters supported the measure to represent 82.17 percent in the special mail ballot only election. It only needed a two-thirds majority, or 66 percent plus one vote, for passage. The measure received 46 "no" votes, or 17.83 percent.
The Westport election drew 259 voters out of the 968 registered voters living in the district, representing 26.76 percent.
The measure was promoted as a "last resort" measure to help Westport Fire Protection District cover the costs of fire protection and emergency response services, specifically to fund a daytime firefighter staffing program.
Westport believes it will reap 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.
Westport Fire Chief Chad Hackett said in mid-2014 the department lost seven personnel all at once to paid positions,"and it really took a hit on our force so we were struggling to make calls."
Attempts to generate replacement volunteers failed as Westport was unable to respond one out of seven calls for service for the first half of 2015. To combat the manpower problem, Westport began offering 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.