The Board of Supervisors agreed Tuesday to place a parcel tax on the March ballot that would provide funding for more staffing and upgraded equipment for the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
Fire Chief Daryl Osby, who has held that job for nearly nine years, said calls for emergency medical assistance have jumped by more than 50% since 2008, while the number of paramedic units has increased by only 5%.
"We have not asked for anything in over 23 years,'' Osby told the board. "I come here as a last resort to ask for your support.''
Supervisors Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger co-authored the motion to put the 6-cents-per-square-foot parcel tax on the March 3, 2020, ballot, pointing to a May 2018 assessment showing that the fire department is underfunded and underresourced.
"It showed that our fire district needs at least $1.4 billion just to upgrade and replace (equipment and technology),'' Hahn said.
The parcel tax, which requires approval from two-thirds of voters and would exempt low-income seniors, is estimated to raise $134 million annually.
The tax rate would increase by up to 2% annually, and would remain in place permanently unless revoked by voters, according to county documents.
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Some of the department's fire engines and rescue vehicles are 20 years old and frequently break down, leaving firefighters and paramedics to devise a short-term solution or go out of service, officials said.
More firefighters are also urgently needed, Hahn and Osby said. The department falls short of national staffing standards and is being called to manage more demanding, more dangerous wildfires.
"We cannot relay on mutual aid ... it's up to us,'' Osby said.
Firefighters shared stories of being called away from their families for unscheduled shifts and spending the day running from one terrible trauma to another, from fires to gunshot wounds to trying to save a child's life.
"We are facing campaign fires several times a year that cannot be fought by humans alone,'' firefighter-paramedic Erin Regan told the board, calling for more and better firefighting equipment. "When you call 911, you know that help is coming, but for us, there's no help ... this is our 911 call.''
Osby was emotional as he talked about the strain that understaffing has had on first responders.
"I've lost track of the number of funerals I've spoken at,'' Osby said, guessing it had been more than 50.
He mentioned seven suicides in the department, and International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1014 President Dave Gillotte told the board more firefighters have lost their lives to suicide than in fires in recent years.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said she wasn't sure that the average resident understands the fire department staffs all paramedic units, and that firefighters fill both roles. More than 80% of calls to the department are for medical assistance.
Kuehl said the Woolsey Fire highlighted the grueling work of firefighters "who were there for so long and did so much.''
However, Kuehl said the decision to institute a parcel tax was "not in any way knee-jerk'' in response to a single incident, but "evidence-based, fact-based.''
The president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association told City News Service he thought it would be tough to pass the ballot measure, which he characterized as a "very unnecessary tax'' given that the county's property tax revenues are already up by more than 6%.
"Voters are getting pretty tired,'' Jon Coupal said, pointing to high state income tax, sales tax and gas tax rates. "Even though this involves public safety ... I think voters are going to look at this very skeptically.''
The county's tax roll grew by $94.4 billion in 2019, raising roughly $1 billion more for county programs, according to a statement issued by County Assessor Jeffrey Prang in July.
Coupal predicted that the county would "run into a buzzsaw'' when it comes to business owners with big parcels, saying they would "be very motivated to defeat this.''
In addition to the 2018 assessment by a finance and infrastructure expert, the county has undertaken 6,000 community surveys and made 130 presentations to community groups about the proposed tax, according to Hahn.
However, previous county tax proposals -- for parks, stormwater projects, and to fight homelessness, for example -- have typically been debated before the board multiple times before gaining approval.
The board's vote was 4-0, with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas absent to attend a state Assembly Select Committee meeting on homelessness in skid row.
Barger seemed to anticipate some push-back on the tax proposal.
"For any critics that say this has been done in the dead of night, I beg to differ,'' Barger said, before calling on voters to "vote your conscience, vote your heart.''