Business owners sank fire department assessment

Officials with the Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department are staring down the barrel of $18 million in future debt and a stack of ballots that show local property owners don’t want to pay for it.

Homeowners in both cities — who would have paid $93 a year in Belmont and $99 in San Carlos —predominantly voted in favor of a tax assessment proposed this fall. But their votes weren’t enough to outweigh commercial property owners who hold more land and would have paid anywhere from $322 to $1,000 or more if the assessment passed this month.

“[Belmont] received nearly 60 percent overall support, but when weighted, we only mustered 41 percent,” said Thomas Fil, the city’s finance director. “The difference was those large assessments on businesses and apartment buildings, and that’s something that needs to be revisited if there’s another [tax measure].”

In San Carlos, dozens of property owners along Laurel Street or El Camino Real — the city’s retail hub — voted no to an annual $322.32 tax hike. Sheryl Pomerenk, executive director of the San Carlos Chamber of Commerce, said her agency hasn’t discussed the vote with its members yet but would likely do so during a meeting of its government affairs committee Friday.

Some voters left notes on their ballots indicating why they voted the way they did, ranging from the realities of life on a fixed income to a perception that firefighters are “fat cats who are just getting benefits with rare firefighting.”

Others offered cost-saving suggestions: “Seek a contract with CDF and San Mateo Fire — save money and consolidate,” one San Carlos voter wrote. “Cut city expenses, not raise taxes,” wrote another in Belmont.

While the joint fire agency is in good shape through June 30, 2007 with a balanced budget of roughly $10.5 million, the looming cost of retiree medical benefits — coupled with the need to establish a reserve fund — will in coming years push its budget well beyond what Belmont and San Carlos can currently afford. Belmont and San Carlos examined the election results in separate meetings this week, while the Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department board will meet tonight to study next steps.

“We want to discuss options available to us for funding the fire department, such as changing the fee schedule,” said Fire Chief Doug Fry. He also wants to study ways to make the department more efficient, though neither will close the debt.

Belmont and San Carlos each pay $5.3 million a year to support the fire department they’ve shared since 1976.

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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