An anxious group of employees and their families, board members, business owners, and community support members were gathered together the evening of November 8, 2016 to await the fate of the District’s special tax measure, Measure A, which would determine the future of the Apple Valley Fire Protection District. The joyful excitement and euphoria of the gathered crowd could hardly be contained as the first round results were viewed on TV screens at the venue. Amid laughter, tears, and shouts of joy the assembly could hardly believe the number on Registrar of Voters’ website showing more than 76 percent ‘YES’ vote from the District’s constituency.
Measure A not only determined the financial viability of our 65-year old fire district, it also asked for an increase to the current special tax to reduce response times and reopen two closed fire stations to increase emergency services in Apple Valley. The measure the District put before the electorate would ask them to nearly double the amount of the existing tax. The cost of Measure A to the average home owner would be $126 per year with an annual increase of (not to exceed) 2 percent.
Back in 1990, the District’s Board of Directors passed a benefit assessment that provided funding for two additional fire stations. However, the subsequent passage of Proposition 218 meant that the assessment needed to be reestablished by a vote of the people. The first attempt by mail-in ballot was unsuccessful. Subsequent to this failed attempt and discontinued funding, there was a massive layoff and the closure of several fire stations.
In 1997, Measure V was mounted by the District and until the recent recession, enabled the District to staff five fire stations.
The Measure V special tax was scheduled to sunset in 2017 after its 20-year lifespan. After its passage in 1997, the potential consequences of the pending sunset was always looming. It did, however, keep the District focused on customer service, transparency, and fiscal prudence. The District became more visible with its outreach efforts through increased public education, service clubs, and its online presence. The District’s goal was to make every encounter with the public a positive one. The employee associations became more involved and visible through their many charity efforts within the community. The foundation for the success of Measure A was more than 20 years in the making. This commitment, our motto, “A Commitment to Service Excellence” remains at the very core of who we are.
Acting proactively, the District tried and failed with a special tax measure on the June 2014 ballot. Understanding the gravity of losing 29 percent of its revenue on the heels of several years of declining property tax revenues brought about by the Great Recession, the Board of Directors made the decision to try to once again try to pass a special tax measure in November 2016.
All the while demands for service were on the rise. The District serves 85,000 residents and covers 206 square-miles. In addition to the loss in revenue, the waning property tax revenues had necessitated the closure of two fire stations leaving the 206 square-miles to be covered by two chief officers and three engines, in three fire stations staffed by nine firefighters to answer in excess of 10,000 calls per year.
The November 2016 ballot measure was to be a last attempt to secure funds and the District’s future. Failure would most likely have resulted in the dissolution of the District and annexation by the San Bernardino County Fire District.
Measure A was the District’s Hail Mary. Its revenue would nearly double the existing special fire tax and would eliminate the 20-year sunset. Data and pre-polling information indicated that these were pretty big obstacles for the District to overcome and in fact showed that both an increase and the elimination of a sunset to be extremely detrimental to the approval of a tax.
The Lew Edwards Group (LEG), whose reputation for success was well known, was retained in the District’s effort to take advantage of every resource. LEG worked closely with the District staff in developing a plan for success. Analysis of their opinion surveys was invaluable in shining light on segments of the community that had not been adequately informed, educated or reached about the District in previous tax measure attempts. Work began in late 2015 and early 2016 in refining the message and determining how to reach the voters.
A citizen group of business and community leaders formed the Citizens for Apple Valley’s Emergency Services (CSAVES) which handled most of the advocacy events and fund raising separate from information and discussion meetings held and attended by the District’s fire chief and board members. Along with a web page, www.reopenAVFireStations.com, and Facebook presence, CSAVES sent mailers, planned fund raising events and advertised in the local paper. The District’s employee associations and their families put in many hours reaching out to the voters through the placement of signs, phone banks, informational talks and presentations, and going door to door.
According to the San Bernardino County Elections web page, Measure A has received more than 77 percent approval in an election cycle that saw the highest Apple Valley voter turnout in recent history. The keys to success were being proactive and starting early, working with a consultant to structure and focus the message, the campaigning of citizen groups, the off-duty work and commitment of the District’s board and employees, and the public trust the District had worked diligently to earn over the life span of Measure V.
Mike Parsons retired from the Apple Valley Fire Protection District in December 2016.