Solid Community Opposition Not Enough To Prevent Needles Fire Merger

It was 105 degrees at a quarter ’til seven on Thursday morning, June 23, in Needles, which three days previously was declared the hottest place on earth that day by one weather bureau. But things got even hotter Wednesday afternoon in the packed room of the historic El Garces train depot, with a standing room only crowd, the seventy some chairs taken. It was 120 degrees in the shade outside. Inside, dozens of property owners were fuming when they learned that they were only 52 votes shy of 392, the number necessary to force a new county fire district tax to a vote. Twenty-five percent of the voter population was needed and a little over 21 percent was determined to have protested.
The protest hearing conducted by Kathleen Rollings-McDonald, executive director of the San Bernardino County Local Area Formation Commission, known by its acronym “LAFCO” was held only to call an end to the 21-day protest period and tally the vote with regard to an application by the City of Needles to annex most of the area within its boundaries into the San Bernardino County Fire District and to tax all non government property owners $148.24 with a potential 3 percent annual increase. The application for annexation approved by the Needles City Council on a majority vote made by Robert Richardson, Tony Frazier, Tom Darcy, Jeff Williams and Shawn Gudmundsen, cost taxpayers a non refundable $10,000.
After providing a summary of the commission’s resolution “LAFCO 3206,” approving the reorganization by forming “Service Zone FP-5 Needles and annexing it to the to the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District and its ”South Desert Service Zone” and the “Service Zone FP-5” which includes a previously authorized tax, Rollings-McDonald stated that the number of registered voter signatures needed to take the tax increase to a ballot vote is 392 and the number necessary to terminate the proceeding is twice that.
She stated that the total number of protest parcels is 4,849 but after questioning at the hearing she clarified that only 2,769 of those parcels are subject to the subject flat tax, the remainder (about 2000 parcels) are government and tribal parcels not subject to the tax.
“You would think that 392 voter signatures would be a cinch but we were up against the messaging by proponents, including the county fire division chief and the Needles City Manager Rick Daniels whose statements in the local paper misled some to believe that the only alternative to the county’s services is a volunteer fire department that receives a low rating from the insurance industry and that the cost of fire insurance would sky rocket if we did not go along with annexation” reported Ruth Musser-Lopez who is an activist and administrator of the newly formed Needles Safety and Fire Protection Auxiliary. “We were on a mission to educate the voters as to the advantages of a ‘paid call’ city fire department staffed by professionals who call in extra trained fire fighters as needed as opposed to a ‘volunteer’ fire department. The heat and the fact that people leave town for the summer or are on vacation with school being out also made it really difficult to collect the necessary signatures. Our team submitted 270 protest signatures out of the 340 signatures LAFCO said it received. The rest were submitted directly to LAFCO by property owners,” she reported.
“We had to conduct our protest signature –gathering drive during the hottest time of the year, making it next to impossible to go door to door,” she said. “We also discovered a high percentage of bogus voter names and addresses which artificially increased the required number of protests imposed upon us,” Musser-Lopez added.
Auxiliary member Mary Stein handled the returned envelopes with blank protest forms that the auxiliary mailed to voters on the current register, mindful that protest forms were not mailed out from LAFCO and residents would not know how to search on the website to find and download the form. Stein showed the Sentinel the returned envelopes saying “We found about 100 phony registered voters and at least four people have been dead for years and never taken off the voter role. We did not send envelopes out to at least 25 voters who we knew were invalid. We did not send envelopes out to the entire remaining voter population, but out of our mailing, the U.S. Postal service returned 25 of our envelopes addressed to registered voters as “attempted, not known, unable to forward;” 30 were “not deliverable as addressed, unable to forward;” 10 were marked “return to sender, no such number, unable to forward,” with this latter category explained by the postal service as an empty lot, where there used to be a mobile home or house, but the structure is gone; 4 were marked “unable to forward;” 4 were marked “moved, no forwarding address, unable to forward;” and 4 were marked “insufficient address” which were found to be actual properties with structures on them but nobody has lived there for years— a vacant house that the post office has known about. Two envelopes were returned ‘unable to forward/For review.’
Among these invalid addresses or unknown recipients were those that were otherwise undeliverable. We learned that many names were registered at vacant lots. Superior Court Judge Joe Brisco continues to be registered to vote in Needles on Beach Drive though a protest form to him was returned to the auxiliary as ‘not deliverable as addressed, unable to forward’ and it is known that he moved when the Needles justice court was closed years ago. The fire insurance sales person, Jan Jernigan, is reported to live across the river in Arizona but is registered to vote at her Farmers Insurance business office in downtown Needles.”
Musser-Lopez and Stein plan to challenge the protest count saying the number of valid registered voters is inaccurate and artificially high and the number of required signatures should be about 360 not 390 or 400. They said that had the date stamp on the protests been used to calculate valid protests, then there would have been sufficient signatures. Mailed protests were received the day after the protest period was closed, since the mail is now shipped to San Bernardino for processing and then returned to Needles. Further, Musser-Lopez asserts that LAFCO, with County Supervisor Robert Lovingood on the commission, is not impartial and his staff should not be in charge of counting the protests. “That should be the job of the Registrar of Voters and we should be able to see the roster of voter protests,” she said.
There is some resentment in the community that Lovingood is in large part responsible for having exacted the new flat tax by first doubling the price of the fire contract from roughly $600,000 to $1.2 million and then ushering the way into the taxed service zone via the commission he serves on. As a part of the annexation agreement, the county will receive all of the new parcel tax plus 73 percent of the existing property tax, all of the city’s fire equipment and the fire truck.
On the agenda at the protest meeting, the City of Needles was provided 5 minutes for speech while registered voters, landowners and/or the public were given only 3 minutes per person to state their case. Representing the city was its mayor, Ed Paget, who acknowledged that there was significant opposition to the annexation but that he would take no position on it.
Tom Marshall, representing the South Desert Division of the SBC Fire District informed the crowd that by annexing to the fire district the community’s insurance rating would not change but that the rating would decrease if a volunteer fire department was employed. This statement was responded to with jeers from the crowd, questioning why he refused to acknowledge that a “paid call” fire department is different than a “volunteer” fire department. None of the remaining speakers were sympathetic toward the new tax and most demonstrated strong opposition. Those protests were responded to with support and cheers from the audience. These speakers included Edward Sanchez. Paul Pletcher, Billy Bradshaw, Margaret Perry, Don McCone, Terry Campbell, Cheryl Sallis, Mary Stein, Ruth Musser-Lopez, Councilman Shawn Gudmundsen and Nyla Anderson.
Sanchez objected to the cost of services and taxes in Needles saying that funds are diverted to subsidize the city golf course and freebies for the rich while the rest of the town suffers. Several speakers said the tax should be voted on and objected to the nature of the tax being flat and not based upon the value of the property being protected, with a vacant lot taxed the same as a mansion. Musser-Lopez objected to the county leaving the city vulnerable as it uses up and depreciates the fire truck, taking it into the desert and 60 miles away on I-40. “Just think what this community could do to improve our own fire department and create local jobs with the over million dollars that will now be going to the county,” she said. Sallis inquired about funds that were in excess of what would be needed for operations and it was learned that the county would have complete control of the funds which would not be returned to the city. Anderson, who is a member of the fire auxiliary, thanked all who had assisted in collecting protest signatures and said though we may not all agree “our community is still family.”
Towards the end of the meeting, Councilman Shawn Gudmundsen advanced to the podium and protested vehemently that he was wrongfully accused of having supported the annexation. The Sentinel has since researched the question and concluded that in December 2015, the council split Resolution 2015-51 into two actions, one to approve filing an application with LAFCO for annexation to the fire district and the second to request that the new district territory be included within FP-5 service zone of the district which is an area subject to a previously authorized tax. Councilwoman Louise Evans voted against both actions while Jeff Williams voted against inclusion in a taxed service zone. The other four council members, including Gudmundsen, voted for the annexation and for being included in the taxed service zone.
Stein, speaking on behalf of the auxiliary, advocated for ditching the annexation and returning to a city fire department with “paid call” professionals when needed to supplement the regular round the clock three man crew suggesting that the local young people who want extra employment get trained at the existing local fire academy in Mohave Valley or set up a new program at Needle’s Palo Verde College campus. She said “Training and hiring locally would create jobs locally for those whose heart is in their community, appreciate its history and have a personal interest in saving heritage structures as well as homes and buildings from the throes of fire.”
After hearing about the decision, local business owner Kenny Baldwin of Premier Sports told the Sentinel he is “over it. This tax cinch tightening is strangling business in Needles. First it was the water and sewage increase and now this extra tax added to the business tax and existing property tax…basically taxing you out of business. So many rules and regulations, the EPA and fire department. The fire department could close my boat repair operation down in a heartbeat if they wanted to. You can only pay so much and then you aren’t making any money. Why be here? We are here to make a living. That is what happened to the Chevrolet dealer and Ford dealer…they are no longer here. You can put up with just so much of it and after a while it is just not worth it to be here.”

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