By Mark Gutglueck
In a move that is likely to fuel already roiling discontent within several cities and communities throughout the county, the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission on May 16 approved the annexation of Hesperia into the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District’s North Desert Service Zone.
The absorption of the 73.2 square miles within the current Hesperia City Limits into the fire service zone is in keeping with a trend that began in 2015 and continued through last year, as over that two-year period the cities of San Bernardino, Twentynine Palms, Needles and Upland, together with the unincorporated county area of San Antonio Heights were all annexed into a county fire service zone.
Despite Hesperia falling into line with those four municipal entities, two primary differences distinguish it from the others. Upland, Needles, Twentynine Palms and San Bernardino all lost their municipal or locally-administered fire departments in the transition, as the county fire division supplanted those departments. In the case of Hesperia, the county fire department was already serving as the local fire protection service provider.
Additionally, upon their annexations into those districts, property owners in San Bernardino, Twentynine Palms, Needles, Upland and San Antonio Heights were required to pony up a yearly assessment of between $146 and $156 annually. That revenue was absorbed by the county and used to partially defray the cost of fire protection operations. In approving the arrangement in Hesperia, however, the Local Agency Formation Commission, known by its acronym LAFCO, ratified the fire district annexation without a requirement that Hesperia residents, businesses or property owners pay for the service.
Rather, according to county and city officials, the county is going to make an historic adjustment in the property tax revenue passed through to the city, which in turn will be handed back to the county as a subsidization of the fire protection service the city is to receive.
The property tax allocation formula for local governments in San Bernardino County is a complicated one under which there is no uniformity city to city. In the years previous to Hesperia’s incorporation in 1988, the county directly provided many of the services to that community, which also was provided with amenities and services by the previously existing Hesperia Recreation and Park District, the Hesperia Fire District and the Hesperia Water District, all three of which were independent agencies. Upon incorporation, city officials failed to broker a very favorable split of property taxes with the county, as many of the cities that incorporated after the passage of property tax-limiting Proposition 13 in 1978 were given a less-than-generous allotment of the diminishing property tax stream. This was a particularly harsh circumstance for Hesperia, which at 73.2 square miles, had over 473 miles of roads, many of them neglected and deteriorating.
The city was allotted a mere 1.59 percent of the property tax revenue – $1.59 of every $100 collected within Hesperia’s confines. That was the second smallest allotment of any of the cities in the county at that time. Subsequently, Hesperia officials sought to arrange a better deal. At one point, Hesperia and Chino Hills, which incorporated in 1991 and was also given short shrift in terms of property tax, were on the brink of achieving a breakthrough by means of legislation wending its way through the California legislature. But Hesperia officials, including council members/mayors Dennis Nowicki, Jim Lindley and Tad Honeycutt, all of whom were at that time political allies of Bill Postmus, opted out of being beneficiaries of that legislation upon being promised by Postmus that he would use his authority as county supervisor for the First District, in which Hesperia is located, to boost the city’s share of the property tax revenue collected from the city’s landowners.
Hesperia was not the only city in the county which formerly found itself shortchanged with regard to the division of property tax. Chino Hills, Apple Valley, Highland, Victorville, Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana and Adelanto found themselves in similar circumstances, with Victorville at that time being allotted no return in property tax at all. In no case were any of those cities experiencing more than a 5.2 percent return of property tax collected within their respective borders. In 2003, the county agreed to allot all of those cities 7 percent of the property tax on any land annexed into those cities after that point. In addition, several of the cities individually and collectively pursued litigation and legislation sponsored by local state lawmakers aimed at upping those cities’ property tax revenue.
Hesperia participated in those efforts. The first legislative effort in this regard, Assembly Bill 1057, failed on the Senate floor in 1999. Subsequently, then-Assemblyman Phil Wyman introduced Assembly Bill 1378, which was designed to give Hesperia a larger share of property taxes collected by the county, such that Hesperia at that time stood to be the recipient of $2 million more per year if Assembly Bill 1378 passed. But the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to oppose AB 1378 and a key member of the board, former Assemblyman and then-Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Fred Aguiar, lobbied in Sacramento against it. Wyman than dropped the legislative try, saying “I killed the bill because we’d rather do it together at the local level.”
Hesperia officials abandoned the legislative approach and pulled out of litigation it was engaged in as a co-plaintiff with other cities after assurances were provided that then-Hesperia Mayor Jim Lindley would be able to use his entré with his then-political ally, then-Board of Supervisors Chairman Bill Postmus, to amicably negotiate with the county an increase in Hesperia’s share of the property tax return. For Chino Hills, Rancho Cucamonga, Victorville and Fontana, the litigative/legislative approach succeeded and by 2006, those cities saw an increase in their end of the formula for property tax splits.
Victorville saw its share of property tax pass-throughs upped from zero to 4.72 percent, with 6 percent going to its fire district and 5 percent going to its park district.
Apple Valley was granted 9.4 percent of the property taxes its residents pay and another 9.2 percent was handed over to the town’s fire district.
The city of Rancho Cucamonga now gets 5.11 percent and its fire district is provided with 12.48 percent.
A deal was brokered with the City of Chino Hills such that it continues to get a 3.9 percent return on property tax paid for property that was previously within the city and ten percent of taxes from new development. The fire district serving Chino Hills also receives 15.15 percent of the property tax paid by Chino Hills residents, businesses and landowners.
In Fontana, the city receives a 3.8 percent property tax return, while its fire department is granted an 18.55 percent return.
The City of Highland is given 24.4 percent of the property tax collected within its city limits.
Adelanto remained as the only other city in the county accompanying Hesperia in standing on the outside looking in with regard to the parsimonious distribution of property tax. It receives 1.75 percent of its residents’ property tax.
While Hesperia’s officials in the earliest years of the Third Millennium had hopes that their dialogue and negotiations with the county would substitute for legislative or litigative fixes relating to the city’s property tax receipts, Postmus outmaneuvered the City of Progress. Hesperia’s attempt to achieve property tax revenue parity with the county’s other cities ran aground when Postmus offered Lindley, at that time Hesperia mayor, a job with the county, and likewise extended employment to no fewer than four of Nowicki’s relatives. Lindley, with Postmus’ backing, became county legislative analyst in 2005 and was later promoted to the positions of county chief purchasing officer and then county health officer. Nowicki’s wife, Paula, was provided first with the chief analyst position in Postmus’ supervisorial office and later promoted to become his deputy chief of staff. Subsequent to Postmus’ election as county assessor in November 2006, Postmus succeeded in getting his board colleagues to appoint his chief of staff, Brad Mitzelfelt, to serve out the two years remaining on his term as supervisor. Postmus flirted with the idea of having Paula Nowicki accompany him to the assessor’s office to become assistant assessor until Mitzelfelt upon becoming supervisor immediately appointed Paula Nowicki as his chief of staff.
Once in place as assessor, Postmus hired Wanda Nowicki, Paula and Dennis Nowicki’s daughter-in-law, to serve as his executive secretary.
With key elements of Hesperia’s then-political leadership having been lulled into complacency by the employment opportunities Postmus had extended to them or family members, the head of steam that had been built up to gain for the city property tax parity was compromised. With Victorville having succeeded in laying claim to 4.72 cents of every property tax dollar collected there, Hesperia had become the city with the paltriest property tax share of any of the county’s incorporated municipalities. Up until this week, the County of San Bernardino kept 14.23 cents of every property tax dollar collected in Hesperia. In Hesperia there is a fifteen way split of property tax. The other thirteen beneficiaries of the property tax rolls are the Hesperia Unified School District, which is given 29.5 percent; another 21.41 percent goes to the Education Revenue Augmentation Fund, most of which comes back to the school district; the Hesperia Fire Protection District pulls in 15.3 percent, nearly ten times what the city receives; The Victor Valley Community College District claims 6.4 percent; the Hesperia Recreation and Park District is given 4.3 percent. The county’s flood control district claims 2.2 percent for operations and 0.09 percent for administration; the county library system takes 1.38 percent; the Hesperia Water District is provided 1.03 percent; Community Services Area 60, which lies at the city’s periphery, is entitled to 0.99 percent; the San Bernardino County superintendent of schools accroaches 0.97 percent; the Mojave Water Agency abducts 0.50%; and the Mojave Desert Resource Conservation District nabs 0.02 percent.
In 2004, the Hesperia City Council in a highly controversial move, closed out its municipal fire department and contracted with the county fire department for fire safety service. That so angered Mike Leonard, a firefighter with the department, that he ran for city council that year, and won. Leonard grew accepting of the county fire department holding the contract for providing that service, and he resisted a move several years ago to have the county withdraw in favor of a volunteer department.
With the contract and the contract extensions to the contract the county and City of Hesperia entered into in 2004 approaching expiration, both entities more than a year ago entered into negotiations to keep the county’s fire division in place as the city’s de facto fire department. Simultaneously, the city looked at other options, including potentially contracting with other entities, such as the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire, or reinstituting a city fire department. A smorgasbord of options was considered, as the county, seemingly intent on keeping Hesperia as a service area, showed both flexibility and a willingness to offer the city incentives. Of note was that simultaneously, the City of Victorville was moving toward the end of its ten-year contractual arrangement with the county and the county fire division. Four years after Hesperia had dissolved its municipal fire department, Victorville in 2008 had done the same. Officials there, however, were entertaining the notion of bringing the city’s fire department back into in existence, and have since set on a course to do just that. Accordingly, keeping Hesperia in the county fold took on an even greater imperative.
After the Hesperia City Council and City Manager Nils Bentsen signaled their willingness to stay with the county by submitting an annexation application to the Local Agency Formation Commission in March 2017, discussions turned to how the continuing relationship between the city and the fire district was to be structured.
Among the approaches was to have Hesperia annex into the county’s Fire Protection Zone 5, the same entity into which Needles, Twentynine Palms, San Bernardino and Upland were absorbed. That arrangement would have imposed on all parcels in the city a $150 service assessment. Ultimately, the city and county opted not to go that route.
Nor did the parties accede to an annexation involving the expansion of Special Fire District 941, which was long considered a non-starter by Hesperia. That, too, would have entailed a fire tax on Hesperia residents.
The city council was hyperconscious that city residents were not keen on paying increased taxes to augment the fire department. In November 2011, Hesperians were asked to vote on Measure F, which would have imposed an $85 per parcel per year assessment on property owners in the city for five years with the proceeds of the tax going to support the Hesperia Fire District. That initiative was overwhelmingly defeated, with 1,376 yes votes, or 19.26 percent in favor, and 5,759 no votes, or 80.74 percent opposed.
On January 14, 2012, the county had shuttered Hesperia Fire Station 301, located at 9430 11th Avenue, out of which one paramedic engine, one brush engine, one paramedic ambulance and one heavy rescue vehicle had previously been staged. That left only Fire Station 302, at 17288 Olive Street, with one paramedic engine, one brush engine and two paramedic ambulances, and Fire Station 304, at 15660 Eucalyptus Street, with one paramedic engine, one ladder truck, one paramedic ambulance, one water truck and one chief’s vehicle, manned and running as city fire stations in the 72.3-square mile city.
Those issues were of moment in the discussion. In time, the consideration that Hesperia has long sustained the slight of being the second lowest and now the lowest recipient of property tax among the county’s 24 incorporated cities came into play. The contractual language evolved to boosting that property tax return from 1.59 percent to 3.5 percent.
Contained in the terms worked out is that the county will completely reopen Fire Station 301, which about four years ago the county partially reactivated as a base for an ambulance unit solely. The fire station, which formerly belonged to the city, will become a county asset.
Projections are that the entirety of fire service operational costs in Hesperia will run to $11.2 million per year in fiscal 2018-19. The county is banking on getting $3.5 million in property tax revenue transfers from the city, and will also have $5.3 million in funds from other sources to pay for sustaining operations in Hesperia. Thus, it appears, for the time being the county will be losing as much as $2.4 million from its provision of service in Hesperia. That is a trade-off the county and the department appear ready to make, as it keeps the department in place in a most visible arena and minimizes the perception of reversal with the loss of Victorville that ensued after gaining San Bernardino, Twentynine Palms, Needles and Upland. Additionally, the county’s loss will be made up by its accrual of assets from the city, such as the fire station and some of its equipment.
Nevertheless, as residents in Upland, Needles, Twentynine Palms and San Bernardino learn of the way in which the residents of Hesperia have avoided being subject to assessments to pay for county-provided fire service, an already established resentment over the way in which their local governments and the county since 2015 manipulated the circumstance to layer onto their backs yet another tax is likely to intensify.
By Mark Gutglueck