The number of Cannon Beach Rural Fire Protection District tourist-related calls for service increased by 70 percent in 2020 and the district is looking for a way to increase its funding to be able to serve the community.
Fire Chief Marc Reckmann told The Gazette Monday that he has been talking with the city in hope that the council would agree to institute a 2 percent food and beverage tax to pay for additional district staff.
The district currently has 16 volunteers, one paid fire chief, a paid division chief of operations and a grant-funded position through December of 2022 for a recruitment and retention officer, Reckmann said.
He said he is losing some volunteers. The amount of work volunteers put in has caused some to experience “burnout.” It is difficult for a volunteer to respond in the middle of the night to a medical emergency at a hotel, for example, and then get up and go to work the next day at their paid jobs.
Also, several have had to move out of the district due to the high cost of housing in Cannon Beach and therefore, cannot respond to emergency calls.
The district has the lowest permanent per thousand tax rate in the state, he said. In 2019, voters approved a tax of 35 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value to pay for the new operations chief and some money in the reserves. In total, the district receives 89 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, which is “extremely low” compared to the average rate on the north central coast of $1.37 per $1,000.
“Typically calls drop off after Labor Day and stay relatively low until Memorial Day,” he said. “Since September, we have set records every month for calls.”
From January 1 to April 30, calls increased 34 percent compared to the previous two years, he said.
“It’s purely tourism. People work from home and kids” are remote learning, so families are free to come to the beach when they like, he said. He hesitates to ask residents to pay additional property tax for the district when it is the tourists who are generating the additional calls.
He said he met with the Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce recently and the chamber suggested they try a 2 percent F&B tax and “see what that generates.”
The city is “talking about implementing a 5 percent food and beverage tax” and keeping the remaining funds to pay for a new city hall and police station, he said.
Cannon Beach Mayor Sam Steidel said in response to the above: “The city council has high regard for the quality effort the Fire District maintains. We have heard Mark’s idea and we are talking about it. This is a complex idea and needs some careful deliberation. The Council is in a Listen and Learn mode at the moment.”
Food and beverage taxes apply to prepared or ready-to-go food such as what restaurants, delis and coffee shops serve, he said. A consultant estimated that such a tax would generate $2 million a year.
“My goal is to make up the difference between the 89 cents and $1.37, which would be roughly
additional money, the district could supplement the volunteer staff with some paid staff and hire a fire mar$800,000 a year,” he said. With this shal to perform fire inspections and review plans.
“What I don’t want to do is hire a bunch of paid staff and push the volunteers away,” he said. “I will never have the funds to hire an all-paid staff. I never will.”
He said the city’s Transient Lodging Tax, in part, provides money to market Cannon Beach to tourists. That increases the district’s calls for service, but none of that money goes to the fire district. It is “unfair” that the district gets none of those funds and yet has the “responsibility for the public’s safety.”
The district has a $1,000 annual contract with the national parks service so they can’t charge individuals for rescues. “That doesn’t pay for a lot.” That is something the district is trying to change.
A meeting with the city was scheduled on May 4 but the city cancelled it and has yet to reschedule.
The district has been trying to get something done about its budget problem since May of 2019, Reckmann said.