Indications Mounting Historic Downtown Needles Fire Station Will Go To Pot

Fire Station #31 at 633 Front Street in historic downtown Needles, built in 1959 during the heyday years of Route 66, may now become the headquarters of the newest pot “grow-op” in the county. That Rick Daniels, City of Needles manager, is seeking to have the council declare the firehouse property as surplus and put it up for sale was learned at the Needles City Council meeting on August 23. David Buckley, who has previously demonstrated a prescience relating to Needles municipal issues, reported the new development, also stating that at least one of the existing marijuana cooperatives in the community is interested in it. Daniels informed the Sentinel that there have been “verbal inquiries” with regard to the disposition of the fire house besides that of the “Needles Fire Auxiliary” but did not respond to the request for disclosure as to who that other interested party is.
Daniels stated that “When the San Bernardino County Fire District moves into the new Fire Station #32 on Highway 95 South sometime between October and December of this year, the building [Fire Station #31] and property will be considered as surplus to the needs of the city. At that point the Council will have the policy choice as to its future use or disposition. There is no readily apparent use for city purposes, therefore it could be offered to public or private parties for sale or lease… State law requires that the offer must occur through a competitive process available to any and all parties so interested. The city has received expressions of interest by parties other than the auxiliary… The council could choose to pay ongoing maintenance costs on the building and choose not to use it or let others rehabilitate it and use the property for a community beneficial use.”
The news of the sale of Firehouse #31 came as a disappointment to the Needles Fire Auxiliary, which had sent a letter to the city on July 19, 2016 requesting to lease the old station after the county fire district moves into its new facility at the East Broadway exit of the I-40. The letter states: “Our not-for-profit local organization seeks to preserve the future viability of a locally controlled, city fire management and protection department. Our current objective now is to secure the return of all facilities and equipment that was transferred to the County Fire District as a part of the city’s action to annex its territory into a county controlled and taxed fire district…In preparation for the return of our city Fire Department, our Fire Auxiliary intends to use the fire house for fire prevention and management training purposes, contemplatively in conjunction with Palo Verde College. We also intend to acquire, and store at the fire house, the necessary equipment needed to operate a fire department. We will use the office to begin establishing relations with professionals who are interested in hiring on once the voter initiative passes and the county annexation is dissolved.” The letter was signed by Needles Fire Auxiliary Administrator Ruth Musser-Lopez.
Fire Station #32, built by the County of San Bernardino at a cost of about $3.5 million, is billed as “state of the art” with separate dormitory rooms, a “fitness room” and a Plymovent exhaust system to remove airborne engine exhaust toxins. The operation will include a new three-person paramedic unit housed at the new station.
Daniels informed the Sentinel that after review by his staff and the city’s finance director, “I will place the item on the next council agenda (September 13). Shortly thereafter, the site’s availability will be published. After a reasonable amount of time such as 30 days, the city staff will receive proposals and take them to the city council for their determination.”
While a groundbreaking is scheduled to take place on October 31, the new county fire station has yet to be completed and the county fire department crew has not yet vacated the city’s Firehouse #31, but Daniels appears to be moving quickly on the matter before the November election, when three of the six council seats are up for grabs as well as the county supervisor’s position. Supervisor Robert Lovingood who is credited with the project is anticipated to be at the groundbreaking.
“There is no intent to create any roadblock to the public. Local control of the fire protection services is the voter’s prerogative as specified in state and local law, and if they wish to exercise it beyond actions of the city council everything will be done to honor that desire. The ongoing maintenance of a building in serious need of major repairs is a separate matter,” Rick Daniels said.
Fire Auxiliary Administrator Ruth Musser-Lopez opined. “We are trying to preserve the department’s infrastructure to maintain it while the matter of reestablishing a local fire department is voted on by the people and resolved. We have already secured the right to purchase our fire truck and equipment back from the county. Our request to lease the fire house from the city for $1.00 a month, as the city has charged the county all of these years, never made it to the council’s agenda. I told Rick that declaring it surplus was not good long term planning and it certainly ignores the fact of the people’s will to return our fire department. We could get an injunction against this ill-conceived idea to sell our historic firehouse when there is a voter initiative with enough signatures to get the de-annexation on the ballot.”
After the City of Needles council minus councilwoman Louise Evans, who dissented, voted to annex its territory into a taxed county fire district, essentially taxing each parcel owner $148.00 plus per year; that body then refused to place a voter initiative on the November ballot that would have required the council to seek de-annexation from the fire district, reversing the council’s earlier action and require the reestablishment of the Needles Fire Department.
The initiative measure, signed by three of the auxiliary’s members – proponents Mary Stein, Ed Matthews and Ruth Musser-Lopez – was being circulated along with three other voter initiative measures authored by Ruth Musser-Lopez. The proponents assert that they have gathered sufficient signatures of registered voter in Needles, 160 or 10%, on all four voter initiatives, though not in time to have the votes counted and the measures reviewed by the city’s legal council before the cut off date on Friday August 12. The council’s refusal to place the measures on the November’s ballot by vote of the council as they have legal authority to do means that the voters will need to wait until the next election to see the initiative measures on the ballot.
At the request of the initiative proponents, the council had agreed to hold a special meeting on Thursday, August 11, the day prior to the cut off day for getting measures on the November 8 ballot. At that special meeting, the city attorney, John Pinkney, and city clerk Dale Jones, who also acts as election official, advised the council that the measures should be reviewed by the city attorney for any potential of litigation and suggested that the ordinances might not be “legal,” also adding that the elections official should be provided time to count and verify the signatures collected. It was explained that a state rule provides the elections official 30 days to count the signatures. The council minus Tony Frazier, who was absent, unanimously refused to place the measures on the ballot without the signature count and legal review. They also dispensed with the argument by Musser-Lopez that the council could direct the city attorney to prepare an argument for the ballot that would lay out any imagined potential for litigation and let the voters decide. Pinckney had argued that lessons learned by other cities with regard to voter initiatives has informed him that it is best to “wait until the initiatives quality before the city determines if they are legal….if they do move forward and the study has not been done then the city gives the voters the right to challenge and the matter would have to be determined in court…then such a determination would not be achievable within the city at a lesser cost…there is a great potential that the cost of the litigation could be more than the cost of a special election…to challenge something at that late stage would harbor distrust…our opinion is that council should follow the process before placing these measures on the ballot…litigation could cost more than a special election…it could be $20,000 for a special election.
Since a count of voter “protest” signatures taken in June by the Local Area Formation Commission’s fell short of the 25% needed to stop the city’s application for annexation of its territory to an already taxed fire district, an association calling themselves the Needles Fire Auxiliary has been preparing and then circulating a voter initiative that would overturn the annexation bringing back the city owned and operated fire department. The voter initiative requires only 10% of the registered voter’s signatures to get the matter on the ballot for a regular election.
Musser-Lopez told the Sentinel that the auxiliary will now need to decide if they want to get the 15% needed to take the vote to a special election which will be an extra expense to the city. “We don’t want the expense of a special election and hope that a new council in November will reverse the course of the city’s destiny by reviving the city controlled fire department. We have discussed the possibility of a local training program with Palo Verde community college located here in Needles and hope that maintaining a local fire department will provide employment opportunities for local young people who desire a career in fire prevention and management. We are very concerned about our communities vulnerability when county fire is busy with fires 40 or 60 miles away. A new council could decide to approve the voter initiative ordinance, or similar, to bring back the fire department without the cost of a special election. A special election is said to cost $20,000…an application to de-annex from the county is only $10,000. If we get the 15% we need for a special election, the council may wake up to the fact that we mean business. There are a lot of unhappy campers who don’t like the new tax that goes in large part to county administration.”
The “fire department” ordinance initiative, if passed, would require the city to de-annex from the county fire district and return to a city staffed fire department. The initiative would reduce a property tax from over $148.00 per parcel per year indefinitely into the future to a maximum of $120.00 per parcel that would be limited to a two year “start-up” term. Though the necessary signatures were gathered during a course of only two weeks, the initiative was one of four initiative measures that failed to timely qualify for the November ballot, a serious set back for the proponents who must now decide whether to seek 80 more signatures (15% of the qualified voters) to force a special election. The city’s staff report asserts that two of the initiatives which are city charter amendment measures must be placed on the ballot of a regular election or an election called by the state and may not be voted on at a special election. That would mean that the two charter initiatives would not be placed on the ballot until the next primary election in 2018.
One of those charter amendments establishes a local historic commission and local register of historic places. The other charter amendment, which its author, Musser-Lopez, claims “will likely go viral statewide” would prohibit the Needles City Council from ever voting to place the territory of Needles in a taxed service district again without the affirmation of 2/3 of the registered voters.
The fourth initiative measure is a proposed ordinance which would prohibit the destruction of the historic footprint of Route 66 in Needles. The city and CalTrans intend to begin construction on a traffic light project in Needles prior to the November election, a project that would turn the intersection of Needles Highway and Broadway into a straight four-way stop with traffic lights, eliminating a historic medium and long 90 degree sweep that is an element of the Route 66 historic footprint. The initiative measures proposes to maintain the long sweep and erect a statue of the Mojave Indian who showed the coastal trail route that eventually became Route 66 to Padre Francisco Garces, the first European to explore and report on the Needles area.

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