Group Forms In Needles To Stop County Fire District Annexation

A fledgling organization its members call the “Needles Safety and Fire Protection Auxiliary” or auxiliary for short is collecting protest signatures in Needles this week in anticipation of a hearing to be held by the San Bernardino County Local Area Formation Commission (SBCLAFCO) clearing the way for the annexation of the area within the city’s boundaries into the San Bernardino County Fire District.
The application for annexation was approved by a unanimous vote of the Needles City Council. It calls for a $148.24 tax on all parcels in the city, with a potential 3 percent annual increase. The hearing will be held on June 22 at 3:00 p.m. at the El Garces Railroad Depot in Needles.
The SBCLAFCO reorganization proposal, entitled “LAFCO 3206,” includes a so-called “annexation” of a new “Needles Service Area” to the discontiguous Helendale Service Area, which lies over 100 miles away. The administrator of the auxiliary, Needles resident and former Needles city councilwoman Ruth Musser-Lopez, filed a protest against LAFCO 3206 claiming that the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission has no authority to process a merger of two service zones, with the residents in one having voted on the tax and the other with residents who had not. She asserts that the use of the term “annexation” for merging two service zones is a misnomer and that while the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission has authority to annex to a district and may annex Needles to an adjoining district where there is no special tax imposed, SBCLAFCO has overstepped its authority in attempting to tax the people of Needles without a vote by way of illegally adding Needles to the Helendale Service area in a totally different sphere of influence with different economic factors. Musser-Lopez cites Government Code Section 56021 and 56375, alleging that it is unlawful to either annex or merge districts or service zones in two different spheres of influence.
It is a peculiarity of California law, which normally requires that taxes, add-on taxes or new taxes be approved by a majority of the voters on whom those taxes are to be assessed, that local governments can arrange for a so-called “tax protest vote” in which a majority of those to be taxed must lodge letters of protest to stop the tax from being imposed. In such a case, all those who do not register a protest are presumed to support the tax. The fire annexation and accompanying assessment application by the City of Needles is subject to that process.
The reorganization is similar to one which was recently processed in the city of San Bernardino for the “Valley Service Area” annexation to the Helendale Service Area. The local objections in Needles are similar to those reported in previous editions of the Sentinel for that prior annexation. At the heart of the protest in both communities is a flat tax of $148.24 upon every parcel with a provision to allow for a 3 percent annual increase. Protesters in both communities have argued that the flat tax is an arbitrary and capricious dollar amount that has not been justified by any proven cost analysis within the sphere of influence that is being targeted and that the tax is being unfairly imposed without a vote of the people within the new service zone.
Further, the auxiliary states that the city should “strive to obtain the highest quality fire protection services with the least added cost to our taxes. We object to the county doubling the cost of fire services and then attempting to force this new tax. We support return of our fire department as provided for in our city charter and a return to local control and local hiring. Our local firehouse was adequate for the needs of our city but the [County Supervisor Robert] Lovingood administration is building a Taj Majal firehouse and now wants us to pay for it. We support paid call firefighters and we want our local young people to get trained. We are tired of county employees who want homes 45 minutes away in Lake Havasu City, including sheriff’s deputies, coming here, leaving us vulnerable if there is a call out and using our county vehicles to drive that distance into another state. We already pay property taxes that are supposed to cover fire protection services and we object to the planned rerouting of these public funds for other uses by our city management and council. We object to the unfair burden paying for county desert operations, including the new firehouse, thrust upon our shoulders without a vote.”
Of note is that the organized protestors in Needles stand a better chance of succeeding with their effort to quash the annexation, as Needles is the smallest of San Bernardino County’s 24 incorporated cities. Thus, the burden that must be met in obtaining the requisite number of protests is not as great in other municipalities in terms of sheer numbers.
The protest signatures may be submitted until the end of the hearing and will be evaluated by SBCLAFCO employees by counting the percentage of the number of registered voters on June 2, 2016 which was 1,607. If 25 percent of that total, 402, are good signatures of registered voters, the reorganization would be submitted to a vote in a special election. If more than 50 percent (804) of that total are received by the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission, then the reorganization would be terminated outright.
Similarly, SBCLAFCO will separately calculate the protests of property owners based upon the value of the parcels that they are protesting for. San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission Executive Officer, Kathleen Rollings-McDonald told the Sentinel that the total value of the proposed Needles service area property is $166,654,274 and that there are 4,849 land owners within the city limits. The value of each parcel is split evenly according to the number of land owners and each land owner is assigned a property value for purposes of calculating the protest vote. If protests are received from property owners controlling at least 25 percent of the value, then the reorganization will go to a vote at a special election. Similarly if protests are received from property owners controlling at least 50 percent of the value, then the reorganization will be terminated.
Musser-Lopez, a Democrat and member of the Desert Bones Democratic Club in Needles, personally appealed to Republicans in Needles to join with the auxiliary in taking a stand against the imposition of new and excessive taxes.

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