A committee recommends the Arcata Fire Protection District continue charging a fee to property owners that allows the district to improve its emergency services, fire officials announced Friday.

”The reason I want to keep the assessment is because McKinleyville is growing, so we're getting more people, more houses all the time,” Citizen Review Committee member Leroy Murrell said. “We need to keep our fire department current, or add more people to it, and we can't do that without the assessment.”

Under the assessment, a ballot measure approved by voters in 2006, a $22 fee per unit of benefit -- or the equivalent of one vacant lot -- is charged to property owners, Chief Desmond Cowan said.

Once a house is built on a lot, the fee increases to four units of benefit because the likelihood of calls for service increases, he added.

The assessment has allowed the district to double its on-duty staff and replace an apparatus fleet. Before the measure was passed, the district didn't change its operation or staffing level for 30 or 40 years, Cowan said.

”I think the important thing is we went decades without increasing staffing, and we can't do that again,” he said. “We can't wait decades to add another person on the engine. We need to be ready to catch up to the growth that occurs throughout the district.”

The measure didn't have a sunset clause built in, so the district told the public that a panel could be formed to review what the district had done and recommend whether the fee be reduced, eliminated or maintained.

After hearing presentations during meetings in November and December on the situation the district faced in 2005, what it accomplished and where it plans to go, the committee -- comprised of Kent Bishop, Ken Cook, Julie Vaissade-Elcock, Pat Sheehy and Murrell -- recommended the board continue the assessment at its current level. It also encouraged the district to explore additional sources of revenue and conduct another review in five years to allow for citizen oversight.

”It's incredibly important to have people on the engine when the emergency occurs,” Cowan said. “We use volunteers and off-duty personnel ... but when you have an emergency, those people that are on the engine and arrive first, they make a huge difference.”

Lorna Rodriguez can be reached at 441-0506 or lrodriguez@times-standard.com. Follow her on Twitter @LornaARodriguez.