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Sutter County Board of Supervisors seeks federal grant, and commits county funding, in effort to add six new firefighters
July 29, 2019
PHF tour group photo

The Sutter County Board of Supervisors has approved a funding plan that could add six new firefighters to the Sutter County Fire Department.

In a special meeting Friday, July 26, the Board of Supervisors granted the Sutter County Fire Department authority to apply for a Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). If the County is successful in acquiring $1.1 million in federal funds, the County would be committed to paying a local share of cost of $707,311 over the course of three years.

The Sutter County Fire Department is responsible for 254 square miles outside the city limits of Yuba City between the Feather River and the Sutter Bypass, including the Sutter Buttes. The Department staffs fire stations in Sutter, Live Oak, and Oswald-Tudor, with just 14 fulltime firefighters and some two dozen volunteers. The Fire Department has suffered from low staffing levels for several years and has experienced staffing difficulties due to injuries and related increases in workers compensation costs.

The County has been investigating possible funding measures to increase revenues to the Fire Department. In late June, the Sutter County Grand Jury reported on the critical condition of the Sutter County Fire Department’s budget and its impact on firefighter safety and response times. The Grand Jury recommended the Board conduct community outreach to alert the 22,500 Sutter County residents served by the Fire Department about the condition of the budget, and to consider funding options, including reassessing a Special Fire Tax that has gone unchanged since its inception in 1997.

County Fire Departments are uncommon. The Live Oak, Sutter, and Oswald-Tudor Fire Departments were formerly stand-alone fire departments, but growth in the County and the need for more professional fire-fighting capacity forced a merger into a countywide agency funded by a Special Fire Tax, in addition to a small portion of property tax that generates about one cent for every dollar of property tax generated.

The Sutter County Fire Department sought a 100 percent grant due to economic hardship, but Fire Chief John Shalowitz told Board members he was notified last week FEMA had denied the County economic hardship status.

Interim County Administrative Officer Steve Smith told the Board the money for the local match would likely come from the County’s general fund, although if any other sources of revenue were available they would be used first.

Board members voted unanimously to the funding promise, but noted the grant is a short-term solution to a long-term problem—chronic underfunding of the Sutter County Fire Department as the result of an old funding formula, rising costs, and fewer volunteer fire fighters.

Board members indicated general support for some form of tax measure to increase revenues and appealed to firefighters who attended the meeting to actively support such a measure if placed on the ballot. Board members and County staff would be precluded by law from spending county time actively campaigning for approval of such a measure. However, community meetings can be held where County staff explain current funding and possible funding solutions.

(pictured: Members of the Sutter County Fire Department and the Sutter County Board of Supervisors following a special Board meeting to approve the grant application).