BELMONT — The mail-in ballots are piling up in Belmont and San Carlos, where both cities are preparing to count the votes that will spell the future of their joint fire department.
Property owners in both cities are voting on an assessment designed to raise a total of $2.5 million in support of the Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department, the new name for the cities’ 25-year-old joint fire department, formerly the South County Fire Authority. Officials voted to spare the department from dissolution early this year, on the condition that they get an assessment passed.
“It’s going to be a nail-biter,” Belmont City Council member Dave Warden said. “I think it’s going to be close.”
More than 19,000 ballots were mailed in late September — more than 8,000 in Belmont and nearly 11,000 in San Carlos. San Carlos property owners have mailed back some 5,000, while Belmont’s have returned between 4,000 and 5,000. City Clerks in both cities expect plenty more to come in between now and the voting deadline early next week.
In 2003, voters failed to pass Measure I, a tax measure designed to raise $3.2 million for the fire department. Since then, the department has laid off six firefighters, struggled financially and “browned out” stations when staffing levels dropped. While Measure I required two-thirds approval to pass, the assessment needs a simple majority.
If voters approve the assessment, the department will be able to hire six new firefighters, in addition to the six it hired in early 2006, Fire Chief Doug Fry said. Morale is good and firefighters are optimistic about the assessment vote’s outcome, he said. No one has discussed what the department will do if it doesn’t pass.
“We wanted to stay upbeat. We really didn’t want to go there,” Fry said.
Belmont and Carlos have encountered only minor snags in the 45-day all-mail election. Approximately 300 townhome owners, 200 in San Carlos and 100 in Belmont, protested after their ballots designated them owners of single-family homes.
“They were making an issue of it, even though they recognized it was just a $20-a-year difference,” Belmont City Clerk Terri Cook said.
San Carlos’s voting deadline is Monday; Belmont’s is Tuesday. San Carlos expects to be finished counting ballots on Wednesday, according to City Clerk Christine Boland. Belmont’s votes should be counted by Thursday, Cook said.
“I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” San Carlos Mayor Matt Grocott said.