City officials and firefighters were reeling Wednesday at the news that voters rejected two assessments aimed at raising $2.5 million for the Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department.
In San Carlos, property owners gave that city’s assessment a 53 percent "no" vote, while those in Belmont gave it a 59 percent "no."
In pure ballot numbers, more voters in each city favored the assessment, but the ballots were weighted by the voter’s assessed property value — meaning those with more land, or those living in multi-unit buildings rejected the tax and decided the outcome, according to Belmont City Clerk Terri Cook.
Although officials in both cities expected the vote to be close, they said they had hoped more votes would swing in favor of the assessment.
"I’m very disappointed with the property owners," said Belmont Vice Mayor Coralin Feierbach, who also sits on the Fire Department’s board. "They don’t know how important fire protection is until they need it. We could have another Oakland fire — what are people going to do?"
The results echoed voters’ rejection of Measure I, a 2003 property tax that would have raised $3 million for the Fire Department, then known as the South County Fire Protection Authority.
The joint Fire Department, shared by the two cities since 1979, was destined for a breakup due to financial problems and political conflicts until early this year, when city officials on the fire board halted the split and moved to reorganize instead. The agency board considered hiring another city or the California Department of Forestry to perform fire services for Belmont and San Carlos, but board members vetoed that plan, too, and opted to ask voters for a dedicated assessment instead.
Initially, board members said they would keep the Fire Department together only if voters approved the property assessment. Now, it’s up to those officials to determine the future of the joint agency.
"My first alternative is not going to be to throw away this fire department or to go outside for contracting," said San Carlos Mayor Matt Grocott, a Fire Department board member. "We will look again to see if there’s any [fiscal] efficiencies that we can find."
Station brownouts and staffing shortages, already a reality for the cash-poor agency, will likely be part of the department’s future, Grocott added.
"We were very optimistic," said Gary Fauth, representative for the South County Firefighters Association. "We’ve done so much work, and there are so many reasons to say, ‘This isn’t great, but where do we go from here?’ We’ll be able to work through this."