Upland & Heights Being Forced, Like SB, 29 Palms & Needles, Into Fire District

In the upscale communities of Upland and San Antonio Heights over the last two years, residents abiding graciously and peacefully in their comfortable neighborhoods were barely, if at all, aware that those living in the far less affluent cities of San Bernardino, Twentynine Palms and Needles were locked in a battle with their own political leadership over the dissolution of their municipal or community-based fire departments. In each of those three cases, those turned out to be losing causes, as the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission sided with the cities in granting the formation of a county fire district coterminous with those municipalities’ city limits. Upon annexation into those districts, an assessment was imposed on each parcel owner therein. No actual vote of those to be incorporated into the district and to be assessed was held; what residents were afforded was a 30-day protest window during which all voters in the proposed district and all landowners in the district could lodge letters of protest. If 25 percent of either category – voters or landowners – filed a protest, then a straight up or down vote would have been scheduled on the annexation/assessment district formation. If 50 percent plus one or more had protested, then the annexation would have been nullified outright. In all three cities, nowhere near the 25 percent protest threshold was achieved and the dissolution of the local fire department took place and the county fire department now provides that service.
Whereas heretofore the residents of Upland and San Antonio Heights lived blissfully outside the ken of what was happening in the county seat and out in the desert and next to the river, they are now learning that what happens to others can also be visited upon them.
While Upland boasts having the third most affluent collection of residents overall in the county, it ranks far behind several other San Bernardino County cities in terms of its wealth as a municipality. That is because north of Foothill Boulevard where most of its well-heeled residents live, Upland pretty much exists as a bedroom community with little in the way of sales tax-producing commercial operations, with the exception of the Colonies Crossroads district next to the 210 Freeway. The city’s financial challenges, which four years ago prompted its auditor to warn that Upland was in danger of being unable to sustain itself as a going concern, prompted the city council to embrace the idea of following in the footsteps of San Bernardino, Twentynine Palms and Needles by closing out its fire department and annexing, along with bordering San Antonio Heights, into the county’s Service Zone FP-5. Accompanying the annexation will be a $150 per parcel assessment.
After the proposal was floated last year, the city council signed off on making the appropriate inquiries and applications with the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission. Last week the commission held a public hearing, during which spirited opposition to the changeover was registered, more so from San Antonio Heights residents than Uplanders. Opposition is based on a number of considerations. Among many Upland residents, the loss of local control is a major concern. Some of those have expressed resentment at not being given the option of applying the money they will be forced to pay in the form of an assessment to enhancing the existing municipal fire department rather than giving it to the county. Another sentiment generally expressed is that Upland officials have lauded the change as one to reduce costs through streamlining, efficiency and economies of scale. Why then, some residents have asked, are they being assessed? A more pointed variant of that applies in San Antonio Heights, which lies within an unincorporated county area and already receives its fire protection service from the county’s fire division. How is it they are now being assessed additionally for a service they are already receiving? Moreover, some sense that more is at play. Though San Antonio Heights and Upland are closely associated geographically, historically San Antonio Heights has been effectively resistant to being subsumed by Upland. Some see the forced inclusion of the two into a single fire assessment district as a precursor of the annexation of the heights by Upland.
Last week, at the public hearing before the entity empowered to accept or reject the annexation, Kathleen Rollings-McDonald, the executive director of the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), sought to offer reassurances to San Antonio Heights residents with regard to the last point specifically, saying the annexation into the fire district would not lay the groundwork for an Upland takeover. Many of those in attendance were skeptical, however, and Rollings-McDonald managed to displease the lion’s share of those on hand when she signaled what was coming, by saying her staff’s analysis showed “the San Antonio Heights community will also benefit from this change because of the increased staffing levels at the existing county fire station in their community.”
Those addressing the proposal at the hearing were overwhelmingly opposed to it. That softened no soap with the LAFCO board.
The LAFCO board rejected the request that San Antonio Heights be excised from the service zone and then voted to move forward with disbanding the Upland Fire Department as it now exists, annex the department into the county service zone, transfer city fire station properties, employees, assets, obligations, and any of its liabilities into the San Bernardino County Fire division and its Valley Service Zone. In the ensuing week LAFCO initiated the 30-day protest period by sending out notifications of the annexation to those in the district. Not even the most committed of die-hard opponents believes that will elicit anything approaching the 50 percent protest needed to stop the takeover in both Upland and San Antonio Heights or even prompt the minimum 25 percent protest to trigger an election.
Nevertheless, some of the San Antonio Heights residents believe it possible that 25 percent of Heights voters or property owners will lodge protests. A yet unresolved legal question is whether that could be used to force the matter to a vote in San Antonio Heights alone, since San Antonio Heights qualifies as a jurisdiction separate from Upland.
Of note is that the better-fixed Upland and San Antonio Heights residents have more leverage to bring to bear against the annexation effort, by virtue of their relative wealth, than did their counterparts in San Bernardino, Twentynine Palms and Needles.
Bob Cable, a San Antonio Heights resident and one of the owners of Cable Airport, this morning told the Sentinel by text message from Chicago, “The San Antonio Heights Association is furious about this. I personally have never felt that my constitutional rights have been violated as much as with what is happening between the county, the city and LAFCO. I will be back in town next week. We are gearing up to fight this in court.”

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