GRASS VALLEY, Calif. July 25, 2023 – A majority of Grass Valley City Council members declined to declare a fiscal emergency and call for a special election to ask for voter approval of a 1/2 cent sales tax to fund additional firefighters and vegetation management within Grass Valley city limits.

Grass Valley City Council meeting on July 25, 2023
Grass Valley City Council meeting on July 25, 2023

What kind of tax and what for?

City Manager Tim Kiser brought the item to the City Council for a public hearing on Tuesday evening. The proposed general sales tax was estimated by city staff to generate approximately $3.4 million and sunset after ten years. Staff recommended the Council allocate 50% of the general tax revenue from the sales tax to Vegetation Management and 50% of the general tax revenue on Fire Resiliency.

The statewide sales tax rate is 7.25%, Nevada County’s unincorporated area sales tax is 7.50%, Nevada City’s is 8.375%, Truckee’s is 8.25% and Grass Valley’s sales tax is 8.50%.

Grass Valley Fire Chief Mark Buttron explained the staffing bottleneck and how it affects the readiness of the fire department. He also talked about the need for increased vegetation management, both on city-owned properties and private properties.

To pass a general tax, a simple majority of votes is required (50% of votes cast + 1 vote.) A special tax requires approval from two-thirds of votes cast, hence city staff’s proposal to go for a general tax.

Love the firefighters, hate taxes more

Public comment was mostly opposed to the proposed sales tax, with the Nevada County Contractors Association (NCCA) and the Greater Grass Valley Chamber of Commerce voicing their concerns.

Tom Last, speaking for NCCA, recognized that “it’s very extremely unpopular to even question or challenge items that relate to fire life safety.” However, he continued, “we believe that our basic concern is that the construction industry as a whole, the city, state, local taxes, local fees, continued adopted regulations are stressing the construction industry. It’s making more difficult for us to survive as an entity, especially in a community like Grass Valley. We believe that’s other options for the county considered, this is clearly a regional issue. Wildfire and welfare protection is a regional issue. Isolating Grass Valley is not. We don’t believe that’s the best approach and we think there’s some other options that the city should look towards.”

Robin Galvan-Davies spoke for the Chamber, echoing Last’s opposition. “Having this asset sales tax go into the general funds is going to be a point of contention with the community. As Tom said, having a tax, having an additional tax put on the retail community, the hotels, and everyone who sells anything is a burden. We are in economic distress. But one of the things that we said, if we definitely need it, if we want to have the tax, we want to put this into place, it needs to be specified. We were hoping that this would be launched as a special tax. I think that you would not have a problem getting two thirds of the community to support this measure.”

Yes, but No

Council member Bob Branstrom picked up on a suggestion by a member of the public to split the proposed tax into two measures, one to fund the firefighters and one to fund the vegetation management. “I think we’re all saying we want more staffing and I think the public could be convinced of that. I’m not sure they can be convinced of a whole package as it’s currently structured. So I’m just throwing that out as an idea for the rest of the council members. What you think about splitting it into two pieces?”

Council member Tom Ivy wanted to slow the process and continue to cooperate with other jurisdictions, “So, you know, you see Placer County have their wildlife protection plan. I know Nevada County some years ago had the Nevada County Community Wildlife [sic] Protection Plan. So I’d like to see that incorporated moving forward. I think it’s the city’s job to spend the money generated here, and I don’t think that excludes us protecting ourselves from fire outside limits. So I look forward to this conversation continuing and I would love to help make our community better in the future with a little bit more detail, a little bit more work.”

Council member Haven Caravelli wanted to see a plan for the vegetation management portion of the proposed tax. “I don’t take risks very often. I’m not a risk taker. This feels a little bit risky to me just to throw a tax out there, throw it on the wall, see if it sticks. I am 100% in support of more staffing. I get it. I understand what we need to do. I understand what we have to do from a city’s perspective to protect Grass Valley. But I do want us to have a strategic plan set in place of what exactly we’re going to conquer in the world out there for vegetation clearing.”

Vice Mayor Hilary Hodge was opposed to the splitting of the tax in two measures, “I think that we need to continue the whole systems approach, not just what is politically popular. And so I don’t want to split it. I want to be able to deliver to the people something that’s actually going to work for fire mitigation. And while we’re deliberating and hoping that we can come up with some message that everybody’s going to love, which all of us sitting up here probably have never experienced that in our lives, I hope that we don’t have anything we can’t handle until we can figure out what we can bring to the public.”

Mayor Jan Arbuckle grappled with her aversion to taxes and the need to provide additional funding. “I understand the reasoning for Tim clarifying what the fiscal emergency is. I think that that’s important for people to understand why it’s being put on as an emergency, because fire is an emergency. And if we’re going to do this in November of this year, we’re going to go through this fire season without and they’ll get the funding towards the beginning of next fire season, if I heard that correctly. If we wait, we’re going to miss another fire season and nobody knows what the fire is going to do. Fire is the most unpredictable thing, and it doesn’t care where you are, who you are, how much money you have. It just doesn’t what political party you are, it doesn’t care. Fire is very unpredictable. I have always admired you firefighters who run into a fire. What crazy person does that? [chuckles] I just have so much admiration for you for doing that, doing your job again. I’m very conflicted.”

City Manager Kiser pointed out that he understood the NCCA’s reluctance to pay additional taxes, but “the other thing I think that we have not talked about is insurance. That insurance is stopping. And I understand that contractors are concerned about building homes and the cost of those increasing, but if we don’t get insurance and increase our ability to maintain insurance, there’s no reason to build a house because no one can afford the insurance on it. And that’s one of the things the additional staffing would help us with.”

Make a plan for March

The council, while supportive of the firefighters, did not have any appetite to move forward with the special election in November. Mayor Arbuckle summed it up: “So I think that direction is you do not have the five votes up here to go forward with the tax. I don’t think we need to take a vote. I think the direction is loud and clear that the Council wants a plan, an implementation plan in place. We’d like to consider the March ballot, if I heard everybody correctly.”