Amid Dissent, LAFCO Clears Way For SB, Helendale & Needles County Fire Merger

Daniel Palacio braced himself in the front row at the Bing Wong Auditorium of the Norman F. Felheym Central Library in San Bernardino on Thursday at noon where a protest hearing was to commence with regard to the funding of the County of San Bernardino Fire Protection Services Division and emergency medical response services for the city of San Bernardino. Palacio was just one of the approximate one-hundred disgruntled property owners in the audience who had come to contest a new special tax which includes an annual inflation adjustment of up to three percent. The current rate for the Fire Protection Five (FP-5) District into which the city is to be annexed is $143.92 per parcel for Fiscal Year 2016-17.
The City of San Bernardino and the board of directors of the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District initiated the reorganization proposal by adoption of resolutions of application. The reason for this proposal, as outlined in these resolutions, is to:
(1) Provide for an effective, safe and financially sustainable fire protection and emergency medical services to the City of San Bernardino;
(2) Permit the City of San Bernardino to streamline fire protection services to the subject territory so as to provide for orderly growth and development within the city’s boundaries; and,
(3) Permit all affected agencies to provide the full scope of municipal services to the territory within their boundaries. As part of the city’s annexation into the county fire protection district, the 137-year old San Bernardino City Fire Department, the oldest fire department in the county, is being dissolved.
The proposed terms and conditions for this reorganization are set forth in San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission Resolution No. 3211 adopted by the Commission on January 27, 2016, which is available for review in the Local Agency Formation Commission office and on its website. The Local Agency Formation Commission is known by its acronym LAFCO. Palacio bought several condominiums ten years ago when he moved to San Bernardino, lives in one and uses the others as a modest retirement income. He said each condo is worth $50,000 and he calculated the $143 new tax to be 25% more of the current $637 he pays yearly on each one. “It should go by square footage, but they don’t do it that way,” Palacio lamented. He was particularly aghast because “it goes against Prop 13 and we did not get to vote on it…it should require 2/3 vote of the affected people.” Proposition 13 was a voter approved measure passed in 1978 which froze or otherwise limited increases in property tax.
The hearing he attended was a routine requirement, according to the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission Executive Officer, Kathleen Rollings-McDonald, to whom LAFCO commissioners delegated the responsibility of conducting the proceeding. There was to be no vote at this hearing by the five commissioners, who include Supervisors James Ramos and Robert Lovinggood, and they did not sit at the dais with Rollings-McDonald to hear the concerns of the citizens.
Rollings-McDonald announced that protests could be received until the end of the hearing  but that unless 25% or more of the registered voters objected or 25% of the property owners objected to the annexation/property tax assessment action, then the City of San Bernardino would be annexed into an existing San Bernardino County Fire Protection District “FP-5,” which was originally formed to provide service to the area around Helendale, and the new tax would be imposed. Helendale lies 44 miles outside of San Bernrdino’s city limits. Further, the county would commence moving toward taking over fire protection services in the city as early as July 1.
The LAFCO official reported that on April 20, prior to those submitting objections at this hearing, out of 8,234 landowners with a land valuation at $2,989,000,000 only 736 landowners with a valuation of $6,500,000 dollar value had objected. Thus the threshold had not yet been met as it pertains to property owners. She said that of 70,415 registered voters in San Bernardino, only 372 voters had registered protests, thus the threshold with respect to the voters had also not yet been met.
Prior to commencement of comments from the Registered Voters, Landowners and/or Public on LAFCO Decision 3198, comments were received from the “affected agencies.” San Bernardino City Attorney Gary Sainz stated that he, Mayor Carey Davis, and Paul Glassman, an attorney for the city in its bankruptcy proceedings, labor law and employment law attorneys and the San Bernardino Resources Department supported the annexation along with fire chief Tom Hanneman.
The area to be annexed was referred to as the “Valley Service Zone of Service Zone FP-5 (San Bernardino).” The City of San Bernardino is within Supervisor James Ramos’ District 3 region, but the day before, on Wednesday, the commission held a public hearing concerning the commencement of a matching reorganization in Superviosr Robert Lovinggood’s District 1 to include the annexation of the city of Needles to Service Zone FP-5 as the “South Desert Service Zone, Service Zone FP-5-Needles.”
During the public comment period, Scott Olsen, a San Bernardino resident and candidate for the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, said he did did not support the action for the same reason stated the day earlier by Needles resident and current ex-officio member of the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee Ruth Musser-Lopez, who is currently the vice chair of the Inland Empire Democratic Rural Caucus. Both used similar terminology, including “voter suppression” and a complaint that “the zone is being ‘annexed’ to a discontiguous area around Helendale to avoid a vote of the people in the new zone.” They both asserted that the so-called “annexation” rather than the creation of new zones is an attempt to get around the tax laws. “A previous vote in Helendale does not represent our vote” Olsen said. “You are suppressing our right to vote and trying to get around the required 2/3 voter approval on a new tax,” he alleged.
Olsen continued by asserting that the meeting held at 1:00 in the afternoon when working people cannot be there is a further attempt to suppress the voters and another meeting should be held that working people can attend. Olsen added that the notice that was sent out was on a flyer that looked like “junk mail” that people “probably threw away.” He said he was “discouraged that our city allowed this to happen” and that he “respects the city council and mayor but I do not approve of this.” Musser-Lopez condemned the flat tax, saying that the very poor with small parcels are paying the same price as the very rich in mansions, blaming the skyrocketing salaries and benefits of powerful city officials who use power under the color of their government authority at the expense of the disadvantaged upon whose backs the tax burden was being hoisted.
Members of the public were given three minutes to comment and during his, Palacio also objected to voter suppression, stating that obtaining a protest form off the internet was complicated. “Those who can’t use internet have trouble…you must first find the website and then you need to find the place in the website where the form may be downloaded. Also, you can fill the form out, leaving open the possibility of putting down the wrong parcel number. My wife accidentally had one extra 0 on her petition against this that I brought with me and they told me that her objection would not count today.”
Palacio quickly added before his three minutes were up that the the city was abandoning the city charter that provides for a fire department and that there should be a required vote for a charter change. This objection echoed that of Musser-Lopez at Wednesday’s hearing who stated that “the City of Needles is a charter city and their charter requires a fire department…you’ll need a vote of the people to change the charter.”
Those disapproving the annexation during the public comment period included Rebecca Lowry, Richard Stanbrook, Jackie Corsack, Clementine Bernal, Carmel Roe, Deone Lake, Jim Fletcher, Laurie Murray, Roger Franky, William Page, Howard Wright, Emilia Lopez, Sanchez and Sandria Ibarra, most of whom stated that they were residents of or property owners in the city of San Bernardino.
Lowry stated that the vote should be by the people, not just the city council. Sanbrook said that a lot of people did not receive a notice of the prior protest period commencing January 27.
“There was not much opportunity or notification to the public which is not the commissions fault but I believe it is our city council and mayor and city attorney… that this is a stunt and there should have been early warnings to us…the signatures might not be there, but we urge the city to go about it another way…we think there are other avenues to pay for fire protection services without a yearly tax,” Sanbrook said.
Corsack voiced her objection at the high rate and being imposed on property owners. Bernal referenced the empty chairs as evidence of the fact working people could not make the meeting. She said that the City doesn’t need more money for a fire department instead “they need to learn how to budget.”
Roe, a 39-year San Bernardino resident, said that the people are “fighting the devil because everything we say is being ignored…dirty laundry is coming out and we see the crookedness…we are all talking now and more of us are here than the number that typically attends the city council meetings.” She pointed out that “the city gave us the impossible task of gathering thousands of signatures to defeat the tax.
Lake said that at $143 per parcel “we could afford to have our own fire department and that the way this was done is completely unfair, a big expense for the poor.” She said that homes in the “Valencia area on an acre or two, million dollar lots, pay the same tax and not a penny more.”
She objected that people are working in the city and don’t live in the city and that they are getting raises and don’t have to pay the tax while those who live in the city must pick up the tab. Union members in construction, she said, are paid far less than city employees, and that the average pay to a police officer is in excess of $150,000. She cited unfair and extravagant pensions being paid to city employees as major problem. “Those who are retiring when they are 50 to 55 years old and getting out are breaking the city,” she said. “If the city is allowed to get away with this tax then there will be more to come.”
Fletcher said he is a registered independent and has eight parcels in San Bernardino with very little chance of ever catching fire and that he never needs fire service but will suffer an 8% increase in property tax. “It seems that the more the city spends, the more people get punished—not rewarded,” he said.
Murray offered his advice that the if the city wants to raise money then they should turn to cannabis and allow well run and regulated dispensaries which will alleviate the bankruptcy problem. He said his neighbors did not get the notice in the mail. He said that he helped Carey Davis and Sainz campaign and considered them to be friends, but that this is “just wrong.” He said the people are not to blame for the “bonehead decisions” that led to the bankruptcy. “We should be embracing the McDonalds Museum, the birthplace of McDonalds,embrace it and dispensaries—but no to parcel taxes. He cited what he called the 5,000 years of proven medicinal value of cannabis and pointed out the need for safe access. “We don’t need a $143 increase…We are not rich…This isn’t Brentwood,” he said.
Franky addressed the issue of the flat tax and how the disadvantaged and those on a fixed income will have an unfair burden, with a higher percentage of their income going to pay the tax. He voiced concern that the current $25 fee that is used to pay the fire department for ambulance service might be dispensed with for now, but could be readopted after the new tax is put in place.
Page said he didn’t receive a notice in the mail. He learned about it from the newspaper. He asserted that the question of a tax should be on the ballot during the June primary. He called the annexation process an “end run” around the law so that the people would not get a chance to vote on it.
Wright objected to the lack of transparency concerning the “ISO,” saying it is an organization that evaluates fire departments all over the United States for the insurance companies. His objection was that the property owners were not provided any information as to the ISO rating that the new fire protection service would have and that ratings would have an effect upon fire insurance costs. Wright explained that ISO ratings are based on fire crew training, distance between and number of fire hydrants, the distance between stations, the experience of the personnel, the equipment and whether is is outdated or expired. “No one is bragging about having a Class I rating and that is not a good sign,” he said. He said that if the county has a worse rating than the city then the insurance costs might go up.He claimed to have read everything and did not find anything that told the public anything about the ratings or the chance of insurance rate increases. “There is so much lying going on, like Pinnochio. [Former mayor Judith] Valles took by eminent domain the lakes and streams. [Former mayor Patrick] Morris put a drunken zig-zagged bus line in and destroyed the business district. I have nothing against the fire department but the elected officials are dysfunctional and they could care less about what you said,” Wright said.
Emelia Lopez objected to “bait and switch” tactics, saying that Measure Q was voted on and it was decided by the voters not to outsource fire services. “Those who have stayed and supported the city through bankruptcy are now suffering though the bankruptcy,” Lopez said. “That was no fault of their own—the leadership is at fault, yet we are being made to pay for all of the changes. The city and county made a deal on the fire services…the employees, some who do not live here, are making twice more than what I make on an annual basis. The residents have been abandoned by leadership, and do not appear to be concerned as to what it is going to cost us. We budget our household expenses and the city should do the same.”
Sanchez called the tax “sneaky” and said it reminds him of the corrupt government in Mexico.
Ibarra poignantly directed attention to the inaccurate voters list kept by the registrar. which she said includes bogus addresses and people who “died years ago,” thus artificially increasing the number of threshold signatures required to stop the annexation. The percentage should be based upon a more accurate count of who and how many registered voters are in the city, she said.
She asserted voter suppression that not all home owners got the notice.  She said that the protest period began the day the notice was received, so for some, the protest period has not yet started.
LAFCO staffer, Michael A.Tuerpe, was in charge of counting registered voter petitions during the hearing and Samuel Martinez, also a LAFCO staffer, counted the land owner petitions.
The threshold of objections had not been met by the end of the hearing and LAFCO Executive Officer Kathleen Rollings-McDonald stated that during a 30-day reconsideration period between January 27 to February 27 the public had an opportunity to reconsider but that LAFCO did not receive any request to do so.
Rollings-McDonald also said that about 20 terms and conditions apply to the annexation for its completion and that they relate to the transfer of employees, facilities, property tax revenues and other items that would be effective July 1, if approved. “This change of organization will include the transfer of all the city’s fire responsibilities, including the transfer of fire department employees, assets, obligations, liabilities and responsibilities to the SBCFPD and its related service zones.”
She said the transfer would include all unfunded retirement liability and workers compensation; all equipment and stations would be transferred directly to the county fire division. “These facilities were purchased by the revenues of the City of San Bernardino  and will continue to serve them.”
She also said that the revenue generated in this sub-zone and expenditures can be isolated from other FP5 subzones and that general property tax, ad valorem and motor vehicle in lieu fees would be swapped so that there would be a transfer of a portion of those to provide the service. Existing contracts, she said, would transfer to county and changes in the budget due to terrorist attacks would be accepted.
She said that special revenues that were in the property trust would need to be maintained in that public trust.
Rollings-McDonald said that “those who have more than one parcel could consolidate their parcels and pay one parcel tax—contact the County Tax Assessor.”
She also stated that as far as the “Verde Monte area,” only industrialprope rties would pay the tax…other properties are removed from having to pay the property tax. Rollings-McDonald did not make clear the reason for the distinction, however. Wright said that Verde Monte can’t get insurance because of earth quakes. Resident Carmel Roe objected to the  special treatment of Verde Monte property owners, saying that allowing the developers there to get off the hook and not pay the tax is unfair.
The city of Needles annexation is approximately two months behind that of the city of San Bernardino. The hearing on the expansion of the county’s sphere of influence into the city of Needles territory along with the annexation of the city into the county fire service zone FP-5 was on Wednesday. The vote of the commission was unanimous to approve placing the matter in a 30 day period in which the public may request reconsideration. Following the “reconsideration” period, notices will be sent out to the property owners providing them with an opportunity to object in writing. On Wednesday, Rollings-McDonald advised LAFCO commissioners that protests from 25 to 50 percent of the voters, or 762 protests from the landowners, in Needles would meet the threshold that would require additional action in the form of an election, should the parties wish to proceed. Protest from anything over 50 percent of the voters, or 2025, would terminate the action in Needles, she said.

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