Is Orinda Taking Wildfire Risk Seriously?
The short answer is no.
The wake-up call should have been 1991’s Oakland Hills Firestorm, but nothing was done.
Orinda had only been incorporated for six years and our fire department was the county’s ConFire. Despite the fact that the single largest portion of our property tax (23%) went to ConFire, there was no wildfire prevention plan.
Six years later, 1997, Orinda advised the residents to vote to leave ConFire and put our fire protection dollars into a newly formed fire department, MOFD, because ConFire was using a lot of our tax dollars outside of Orinda. The promise was MOFD would use all of that money, $4.6 million in 1997, for service to Orinda with a locally elected board to ensure that this would occur (but no other guarantees). The City itself (the City Council), gave up all control of our fire protection dollars.
20 years later, 2017, the major Northern California wildfires began. First was there was the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa that killed 22 and destroyed 2,800 homes. The next year was the Camp fire in Paradise that killed 85 and destroyed 11,000 homes.
In 2020, when Orinda was planning to put a new 1% sales tax on the ballot, the residents told the City that their primary concern was not roads or storm drains (which the City had planned to use the tax for), but wildfire prevention because MOFD still did not have a wildfire prevention plan. So the City included wildfire prevention as an essential service funded by the new tax. The Voters were led to believe that wildfire prevention would be the primary use of the tax.
By 2020, MOFD was receiving $17 million from Orinda property taxes but was only spending $14 million for service to Orinda with the remaining $3 million subsidizing Moraga’s service. This was not what the voters were promised when advised to form MOFD, but Orinda’s representatives on the MOFD Board would do nothing about it and the City Council also ignored the problem because they had no control over what MOFD did or did not do. The City made no attempt to talk MOFD into using Orinda’s tax dollars in Orinda (as the 1997 City Council “promised” they would be), instead it asked the voters to tax themselves another $3 million for wildfire prevention.
The new 1% sales tax, Measure R, passed in November 2020, and went into effect in April 2021. In its first full year (July 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022) it generated $3.7 million and this year that could increase to $4 million. By the end of this fiscal year (June 30, 2023) the City will have collected over $8 million since the tax began.
Where has this money gone?
Only $1.7 million has been allocated for wildfire prevention with $2.4 million being spent on road maintenance. The five year plan, projecting $20 million of revenue, shows only 16% ($3.2 million) to be spent on wildfire prevention while over three times as much ($11 million) will be spent on infrastructure (roads and storm drains), which was the City’s original plan for the tax. 12% is for administrative overhead with $3.3 million still undecided / unallocated. This is NOT the wildfire prevention tax we thought we were voting for.
What is MOFD doing while Orinda is NOT spending Measure R on wildfire prevention? It has created a wildfire prevention plan (the CWPP - Community Wildfire Protection Plan). The plan is to create a code which would make individual properties “fire-safe”, and the the District would hire inspectors to enforce the code. But no money would be spent on actually removing any of the 100 years of accumulated vegetation (see below) making Orinda one of the highest wildfire-risk communities in the world.
Note, by 2023 Orinda property taxes to MOFD have increased to over $20 million and the subsidy to Moraga has increased to $4 million. MOFD still has no plans to charge Moraga what it costs to serve them (although it has the power to charge an additional $2 million in parcel tax which Moragans agreed to 30 years ago) or to implement cost saving measures to allow Moraga to live within its means. And while Orinda Council members now meet regularly with their MOFD Board counterparts (the 2x2 subcommittee), they will not discuss this issue which was the very crux for forming MOFD 26 years ago; using Orinda tax dollars in Orinda to maximize Orindans’ safety.
On May 27, 2023 State Farm Insurance, the largest home insurer in the State, announced they would no longer be issuing new home insurance policies in California due to the very high fire risk and a few days later Allstate also withdrew service from California.
Orinda needs to do more than it is currently doing. The tax payers have given the City $4 million for wildfire prevention and they are paying MOFD another $4 million more than it needs to provide the current coverage, mostly emergency medical. A lot of vegetation can and should be removed with this $8 million a year. Believing that 7,000 property owners are going to clean up and maintain their properties, after decades of inaction, is beyond wishful thinking.
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