NORTH MONTEREY COUNTY—The North Monterey County Fire Protection District is ushering in a new era.
A month after announcing it will promote longtime employee Joel Mendoza to Fire Chief, the North County Fire Board of Directors celebrated the approval of a benefit assessment that will allow the small district to hire more firefighters and replace some of its aging trucks.
The assessment, which passed with roughly 58% of the vote, means a typical single-family property owner will pay about $97.91 per year, or $8.10 per month, so that North County Fire can make up for declining property tax funding.
The district services roughly 42,000 people in the communities of Royal Oaks, Prunedale, Pajaro, Oak Hills, Moss Landing, Las Lomas, Elkhorn and Castroville. It has stations in Castroville, Las Lomas and Prunedale.
For the last two decades, it has seen its property tax revenues shrink, including much of the revenues from the Moss Landing power plant.
In the early 2000s, that large coastal property brought in roughly $860,000 in tax revenue. Last year, board member Ramon Gomez said, it netted just $142,000 for the district.
That steady decline has made North County Fire mostly rely on grant funding to hire new firefighters and upgrade its rigs. But the volatility of that arrangement was made apparent when the district had to let go of five firefighters in 2019 after a grant was not renewed.
The department, which in 2001 had 31 employees, saw its ranks dwindle to just 22.
“The reality of those grants is they start and they end,” Gomez said. “We’re going to continue to apply for those, but now we don’t have to rely on those. The assessment provides a lifeline, a sustainability, for our fire district.”
Gomez said the assessment will raise about a million dollars annually.
The board has said it will use the new-found funding to hire five firefighters, and repair, upgrade or replace engines that, in some cases, are more than 30 years old—10 years past their typical lifespan.
It will also allow the district to assign three or four firefighters to an engine, the number recommended by the National Fire Protection Association and Cal/OHSA. Currently, two firefighters are usually found on North County Fire engines, Mendoza said.
“If you had three or four [firefighters], you could probably do 30-40% more work than you can do with just two,” he said. “It’s not going to be perfect … but the standard should be to have at least three firefighters on. That makes it safe, and that makes it functional.”
Gomez said the assessment’s approval despite the economic uncertainty as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic is a testament to the work of the fire union, community members and board members who knocked on doors throughout the district to educate the residents about why the fee was needed.
Gomez also said that it helped to have Mendoza, a native of the area who is ingrained in the community, at the head of the organization.
“He’s a tremendous asset for the North County community, and that’s partly why he was hired,” he said.
Mendoza was born in Mexico and immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was 5. His parents worked in agriculture and in the canning industry throughout the Pajaro Valley. He graduated from Watsonville High School and then attended Cabrillo College before working in retail. He worked his way up the ranks at Kragen Auto Parts—now O’Reilly Auto Parts—before deciding to become a firefighter and entering the service.
In 1995, he joined the Watsonville Fire Department as a paid call firefighter, and three years later he was hired by North County Fire. He was promoted to a full-time firefighter in 2001, and subsequently Fire Lieutenant in 2007 and Captain in 2009.
He served as the Fire Marshall and Division Chief before his most recent promotion.
“Growing up in the community, being a part of the community, I feel like I owe the community that level of service,” he said. “For the most part, our department is all people from the area—they were all either born or raised here—and that really helps keep our people with our organization. They have a passion for it. I can see that they’re proud of their community. This is where they want to spend their career.”
Gomez said he believes Mendoza is the district’s first-ever Latinx Fire Chief. He will officially take the reigns on July 1.
He takes over for Rick Parker, who started his career with the North County Fire in 1996.
“I was lucky enough to be picked and, obviously, I’m honored,” he said. “Now that the task is in front of me, I take it as a challenge. What’s going to make things easier are things like this assessment. I’ll have a little latitude now so that I can bring in the right people, so we can train them and so we can provide that service that people deserve.”