OAKLAND -- In a vote that could herald trouble for the renewal of a public safety tax next year, hills dwellers narrowly rejected extending a tax to help reduce the threat of wildfires.
The ballot measure to renew Oakland's Wildfire Prevention District received 66.3 percent of the vote -- just 66 votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed for passage, according to the city's unofficial count released Friday.
Less than one-third of 41,700 ballots mailed to voters were returned by Wednesday's deadline. Overall, 8,150 voters supported the tax and 4,140 opposed it.
Councilmember Dan Kalb said that given the low vote count and razor-thin margin of defeat he will seek to put the tax on the ballot once again next year. Because the tax was already levied this year, the district will still have funds to prepare for next year's fire season.
The ballot measure, which only applied to residents in the wildfire-prone Oakland hills, had the support of council members, the fire department and a well-organized citizens' group.
Its failure raised fears that hills voters are feeling tax-averse one year before the city must renew Measure Y, a property tax that pays for violence prevention programs, fire services and 63 community-focused police officers.
"This sends a message that it's going to be difficult to get an increased parcel tax for more cops," said Geoff Collins, an adviser to the Oakland Police Foundation.
Without Measure Y, current police staffing would sink below 600 officers for the first time in decades. Public safety advocates have discussed trying to increase the nearly $100 a year tax to pay for more officers.
A recent poll commissioned by Measure Y supporters found 54 percent support for doubling Measure Y to $195, which is less than the two-thirds majority needed for approval.
Bruce Nye of the citizens group Make Oakland Better Now!, which helped fund the poll, didn't think the wildfire tax's defeat would put Measure Y in jeopardy.
"I think it tells us two things we already know: that you're always going to have a significant amount of resistance to a tax increase and that there is a significant amount of distrust for anything city government does," he said. "But with only 12,000 votes cast, I don't think it tells us all that much."
The wildfire prevention proposal would have increased the annual tax on single-family homeowners in the district from $65 to $78 with money going to cut brush, clear emergency escape routes and provide roving fire patrols.
Voters approved the tax in 2003 -- more than a decade after a devastating fire killed 25 people and damaged more than 3,000 homes.
But a vocal opposition formed on community chat groups, questioning spending priorities and overall benefits of the tax. "Am I happy it lost? You betcha," said vocal opponent Nancy Sidebotham. "We can't continue to blatantly tax people just because we think people can be intimidated into voting for it."
Sue Piper, who lost her home in the 1991 wildfire and helped lead the tax renewal campaign, said she would keep up the fight.
"The need for fuel reduction services does not go away," she said in a joint statement with campaign co-Chair Ken Benson. "We will continue to advocate for additional money for wildfire prevention services and hope that the community will support (them) in the future."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435. Follow him at Twitter.com/Matthew_Artz.