The future of the Chester Fire Department is in limbo pending the outcome of a Nov. 7 ballot measure designed to provide relief to the financially troubled district.
Measure D would authorize the Chester Public Utility District (PUD) to levy a $350 per-parcel special tax on property located within the district. If two-thirds of the district’s voters approve, the measure would generate approximately $525,000 annually, said Adam Cox, Chester PUD’s general manager.
Approval, however, would still leave the fire department seeking around $800,000 annually to balance its books. If it fails, some district officials are talking about a second measure on the March ballot seeking approval of a $1,500 per parcel levy.
Around $1.2 million is “about what it takes to run the place,” said Steve Vovoril, chairman of the Chester PUD, which provides water and wastewater as well as fire and ambulance services to around 2000 year-round residents in Chester.
The alternative, he said, could be closing the fire district. “We haven’t given up but we have to consider everything,” said Voboril.
A decade of financial difficulties
The Chester Fire Department, with neighboring Almanor’s Peninsula Fire Protection District, is one of just two fire districts in Plumas County with fulltime professional firefighters. They both offer ambulance services staffed by emergency medical technicians.
Adding ambulance services in the early 2000s was a boon to the fire district and the Chester PUD generally, Cox said. In 2014, the Affordable Care Act changed the way rural ambulances received reimbursements. For the directors of the public utility district, the Chester ambulance service “went from a moneymaker to an albatross hanging around their necks,” said Cox, who was hired as the district general manager in March, 2022.
That threw the fire district’s finances into disarray, which continues today. Operations require about $2 million annually, Cox said. The fire district’s revenues include $350,000 in tax revenue and $400,000 billed for ambulance services, leaving a deficit of around $1.2 million a year for at least a decade, he said. To close the gap, Chester PUD directors have borrowed $1.3 million from sewer district funds. They have also used one-time revenue from wildland fire funds, which has generated as much as $6 million in a year.
Chester Fire suffers from “severe structural budget deficit.”Adam Cox, Chester PUD General Manager
When Cox arrived in 2022, he learned “in a casual aside” that the fire department’s insurance policy had lapsed, forcing a closure that left the district unable to respond to fires or emergency calls for over a week.
In March, he and the district directors began discussing a parcel tax to address what Cox called the district’s “severe structural budget deficit.” The current parcel tax of $95 annually, approved a decade ago, is low compared to surrounding districts, he said. An additional $525,000 annually would clearly help, Cox said.
Talks with Seneca break down
In the midst of these deliberations they received an invitation from Shawn McKenzie, CEO of Seneca Healthcare District, to discuss the potential of sharing ambulance services. As a critical access hospital, Seneca qualifies for up to 100 percent reimbursements for its cost for ground ambulance services for Medicare patients. For comparison, reimbursements to Chester Fire’s ambulance services are about 25 percent of costs, Cox said.
Seneca, which currently does not offer ambulance service, initiated a feasibility study based on the volume of Chester Fire’s ambulance runs. To qualify for the higher reimbursement rate, the healthcare district would have to operate all of the ambulance services within a 35-mile radius. That would include not only Chester but also Peninsula Fire, McKenzie said.
He developed a memorandum of understanding that included Seneca’s proposed expectations for a shared ambulance service. It included no financials, he said, because he did not have what he considered adequate numbers for the volume of Chester Fire’s ambulance services.
Based on the numbers he did have, McKenzie projected that an agreement for shared ambulance services would not generate enough revenue for Chester Fire to bail it out of its financial difficulties.
Cox said the draft agreement he received in late July proposed a flat monthly fee that would “barely cover payroll costs” for Chester’s ambulance services. He also objected to the proposed use of Chester’s paramedics in Seneca’s emergency room when they weren’t doing ambulance runs. His heavily red-lined response to the MOU effectively paused talks with Seneca.
“It’s a real mess.”Sherry Thrall, former Plums County Supervisor
The breakdown in what Cox called “a promising agreement” leaves the fire district days away from voter approval of a parcel tax that, by all accounts, will not resolve its financial problems.
“It’s a real mess,” said Sherry Thrall, former Plumas County Supervisor for the Chester area who now serves on the Seneca Healthcare board.
If the Chester Fire Department closes, others among the Almanor Basin’s five fire districts will provide fire protection, she said. Having that many independent fire districts within the basin is “ridiculous,” Thrall said, and will eventually lead to district consolidation.
That does nothing to address Chester’s immediate financial crisis. “It’s a government agency. It’s not like it can just go out of business,” Thrall said.
Adding to its fiscal difficulties, the Chester PUD and the fire department have suffered from “a revolving door” of general managers and fire chiefs, she said. Cox is the eighth general manager since 2011.
And he may be leaving as well. Both Cox and Chester Fire Chief Matthew Balzarini have submitted their resignations effective Dec. 31. The Chester PUD board has not accepted them, said Voboril, the chairman. “Personally, I hope they change their minds,” he told The Plumas Sun.