Property tax proposed for June ballot

Fire Chief Michael Banks listens in on the council. (Photo by Robert Rogers)

Fire Chief Michael Banks listens in on the council. (Photo by Robert Rogers)

Richmond is the only city in Contra Costa County without its own paramedics, and council member Maria Viramontes said Tuesday that it will remain that way unless residents are willing to pay for greater services.

Council members Ludmyrna Lopez and Viramontes have introduced a proposal for a new tax measure to provide paramedic services and improve other public safety services.

The proposal, which Viramontes said would likely take the form of a new property tax, would require two-thirds of the city’s voters to approve it on the June 8 ballot.

But resident Corky Booze suggested that such a measure will be difficult to pass during the recession.

“I just don’t know why this council thinks that the citizens of the city of Richmond can stand another tax. … People are losing their homes and they don’t have any money,” Booze said. “If the city can’t find the money to do things, what makes you think that the people of Richmond can afford to do so?”

Viramontes said that since many people’s property taxes were reduced this year — due to falling home values — the residents can apply that savings toward improving services.

“I’ve heard people come up hear crying about how we don’t have enough public safety,” Viramontes said. “Here is an opportunity for you to help start stabilizing those costs.”

If approved, the tax would raise between $3.8 million and $4.2 million each year, or between $45 and $50 per homeowner. Viromontes said the money would also be used to hire nine additional firefighters to staff the city’s ladder truck, which is used to help rescue people trapped in buildings. The tax would also ensure the retention of eight police officers after the expiration of a federal grant that pays their salaries.

While the Richmond Fire Department are the first responders to the city’s 911 calls, the department only provides emergency medical technicians that don’t have the same level of training as paramedics, Fire Chief Michael Banks told Richmond Confidential. In addition to more training, the fire department would expand its supplies to better address medical emergencies, he said.

Currently, residents aren’t seen by a paramedic until the county’s ambulance contractor, AMR, arrives on the scene, Banks said. The Fire Department has a response time of four to six minutes, but the ambulance company is only expected to respond within 10 minutes, and that time difference can be substantial during an emergency, Banks said.

Most of the council members expressed support for the proposal, but some questioned whether proposing a new property tax will work.

Council member Jim Rogers pointed out that the city hasn’t managed to reach the two-thirds approval needed to pass a property tax in the past. And Mayor Gayle McLaughlin suggested that perhaps the money could come from businesses instead of residents.

“To truly continue to sustain our society, our city, we are going to need more equalization of the wealth,” McLaughlin said. “We’re talking about corporate entities. … And remember, there will be an opportunity for the voters to tax a corporate entity in our city more.”

The council agreed to continue discussing the proposal at a future meeting.

“If the people of Richmond want to tax themselves to provide public services, there’s absolutely no reason why anyone should stand in their way,” council member Tom Butt said. “I kind of feel like it’s something that needs the participation of the entire city council to make it feel right.”

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