Needles Residents Fighting FD Takeover Demand Town Keep Fire Truck

A small town’s fire truck is like fireworks, red-white-and-blue, Star-Spangled-Banner, Old-Glory, 4th-of-July. That big chunk of long red metal, with its hoses and ladders gloriously draped about its sides and its local boy, all grown up, donning his shiny badge and unmistakable fire chief helmet atop the big red fiery engine is the star of the local Independence Day parade as he airs the sirens of strength, virtue and success. Yes, the firetruck—as American as apple pie, truly the symbol of all that is about freedom and independence in the small, iconic, all-American town—the penultimate symbolic statement of the ability to run and control local affairs and local government, to bring about a community’s own destiny against all outside forces, even the rampages of fire, disaster and excessive taxes.
So it had been in Needles, California, at least since post World War II up until the time a few years back that the County of San Bernardino offered the city such a great rate on a contract that combining services seemed like a no-brainer. Sure it took a while to learn where all the fire hydrants were located, and perhaps there was a 20 minute longer response time and a few buildings burned down, but county fire protection services kept the fire from spreading and the insurance rating allowed for reasonable insurance plan prices, at least for those close enough to the station.
Just as everyone was all snugged in and having almost forgotten about the old locally controlled fire department and feeling delighted watching as a new fancy county fire station was being built in town, the County of San Bernardino under the new reign of First District Supervisor Robert Lovingood had another little surprise in store: the county would be doubling the price of the contract, suddenly hiking it from $600,000 to $1.2 million per year with no explanation and no alternative but to either pay up or annex into the taxed service area (“FP-5”) of the County’s Fire Protection District, thus forcing the property owners within the territory of the City of Needles to make up the difference with a new flat tax burden of $148 per parcel. By the time most of the community of the smallest city in the entire County of San Bernardino woke up to smell the coffee and realize that they were losing ownership of their fire truck along with the deal—it was too late to protest. Many of the towns citizens who “go dark” or leave town for the hot summery month of June and July when the notices were sent out to property owners, were not around to protest at the hearing, nor did they mail their protests in on time to meet the three week deadline. Those that did show up were outraged. Moreover, some putting their ear to the ground were shocked to learn what most people don’t know about—the situation of the citizens of Sunset Beach who found out the hard way what Needles is learning now. The Sunset Beach Taxpayers Association was defeated in a lengthy and expensive court battle, when in the association’s court appeal it was determined for certain that a council’s vote to annex its territory to a previously taxed Orange County district is not the same as a legislative vote to directly tax its people, and therefore does not fall under Prop 218, a proposition that prohibits taxation without a vote of the electors where the tax will be in excess of 1 percent of the assessed value of a property.
Undaunted, the Needles Fire Auxiliary, led by three of its citizens – former council members Ruth Musser-Lopez and Ed Mathews, along with Mary Stein – determined to make a two-pronged effort to defeat the exaction of a tax that would go directly to the county trough, leaving its citizens with no control over how it was spent and, moreover, to stop the heist of the fire truck. First they signed a notice of intent prepared by Musser-Lopez, to circulate a voter initiative to prohibit the annexation of the territory within the City of Needles into a fire district, mandating the application for dissolution of any county fire district within its territory and arranging for a local fire department “start-up” tax at no more than 0.15% or $120.00. Musser-Lopez appealed for city taxpayer support, as it would amount to $28 less than the $148 tax the county would impose, would keep the proceeds in local community control and would be limited to two years whereas the county’s annual fire services district tax had no end date. They delivered this Notice to the city clerk last Friday.
On Sunday afternoon in the backroom of the Wagon Wheel, a local eating establishment, they were joined by other locals, former councilman Don McCone along with Nyla Anderson and Paul Pletcher, who pledged to join the auxiliary and circulate the petition to get the initiative on the ballot. The group took a collection to finance a 500-mile round trip, sending Musser-Lopez to the Inland Empire to find an attorney who might represent the auxiliary for the second prong of the plan—obtaining an injunction against the city for having taken action against the Needles City Charter when the city council voted to convey a tax upon its property owners by annexing into the district and that this tax would be in excess of 2% for all property owners whose property is valued at less than $7,400. The Needles City Charter prohibits such taxation without a vote of the electors.
Seeking representation for the Auxiliary, first, Musser-Lopez attempted contact with Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Organization the day after the protest hearing on June 22 in which it was determined by Kathleen Rollings-McDonald, Executive Director of the San Bernardino County Local Area Formation Commission, that there were insufficient protests to take the matter to a vote. There was no response.
Musser-Lopez sought the advice of Upland City Councilman Glenn Bozar, a known foe of increasing local taxes, but the best Bozar could do on short notice was direct her to the Howard Jarvis Association. She then struck out on attempting to elicit the support of several attorneys. Without the guidance of an attorney, Musser-Lopez on her own prepared a verified complaint, in pro per, complete with Exhibits A – H. On Tuesday evening from her location now 250 miles away from Needles, she notified the Needles City Council via a letter emailed to Stein, which Stein printed and delivered to the city attorney at the council meeting that night and read to the public. The notice stated that at 10:00 the next morning (Wednesday) Musser-Lopez, in pro per, would be filing a complaint against the city for breach of contract—violation of the city’s charter concerning tax limitation, and that she would seek an ex parte hearing to obtain a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction against the city to suspend the annexation and the transfer of city fire department property, including the city fire truck.
According to Stein, the council, at that point in the meeting, upon hearing the notice, retreated to closed session to determine what action to take on the legal matter. When the council emerged from the closed session, it was announced the city would take action to defend against the lawsuit. Councilman Shawn Gudmundsen, who voted for the tax annexation said “there are some very serious allegations being made here.”
At 10 a.m. Wednesday morning Musser-Lopez checked through security at the court with three copies of her complaint and application for an order to halt both the annexation and the fire truck transfer. Once through the doors, she approached the stairway to the civil action filing room, but before reaching the civil filing windows she was intercepted by Needles City Attorney John Pinkney. “Okay” she said, “what can you tell me to convince me not to file my complaint.” Pinkney referenced the Sunset Beach Taxpayer’s Association vs. Orange County Local Area Formation Commission (OC LAFCO) case. There ensued some palaver between Musser-Lopez and Pinkney with regard to whether
the Sunset Beach case was relevant to the situation in Needles since the Sunset Beach case cited the taxpayer protection of Prop 218 and not the city charter. Without admitting the likelihood that the Sunset Beach decision would also likely apply to the Needles matter, Musser-Lopez let Pinkney know that she had no intention of leaving without filing if she could not get a guarantee that the city could get the fire truck back should the Fire Auxiliary’s voter initiative pass and the city recovers jurisdiction over its fire department by detaching from County Fire, its South Desert Service zone and FP-5. At that point, Pinkney called City Manager Rick Daniels who called both San Bernardino County’s Local Area Formation Commission (LAFCO) and County Fire District.
At the termination of the discussion on Tuesday, it was agreed that LAFCO would provide the city and Musser-Lopez with an analysis of what it would take to undo the annexation. As far as the fire truck—there will be fireworks come this Fourth of July: to be prepared—a promissory note on County Fire District letterhead listing the Needles Fire Department inventory and a commitment to first right of refusal and purchase back of any property by the Fire Department should it be restored upon the dissolution of the County Fire District’s Needles Service Area—including but not limited to, the fire truck.
By Wednesday an analysis was received from Rollings-McDonald which stated, “…if in the future the city would wish to reestablish its fire department under direction city authority, it could propose the detachment from County Fire, its South Desert Service zone and FP-5. This is a LAFCO action which would require an application, including a plan for service which would include a five-year fiscal feasibility analysis, and the same review process as before. This plan would need to show that the proposed change would be sustainable in order to be supported by the commission.”
There is one big hitch however…one that was not previously disclosed: a future dissolution of the Needles Service Zone and tax would be reliant on a commission’s decision that the county would agree that the loss of income from the Needles parcel tax add on was not detrimental to their operation. One can only assume that the more the county expands, the more they will become reliant on the parcel tax to a point that it will become impossible for them to give it up.
According to Rollings-McDonald, “One additional element that would be required to be considered is whether or not the removal of the City of Needles from the South Desert Service Zone would have a detrimental effect on the continuing viability of that regional service provider. That is not something I could predict at this time.”

Leave a Reply