Barstow’s 2011 Takeover Of Fire Department Now Has It Seeking Sales Tax Enhancement

Barstow city officials, undaunted by residents’ rejection of a half cent sales tax proposal in 2017, last week resolved to come at the effort to redress its burgeoning fiscal problems through a taxing scheme from a different angle, and will this year appeal to the city’s residents to approve a one cent sales tax in November.
In 2017, Barstow sought from its voters approval of Measure J, a special purpose tax consisting of a half-cent sales tax hike throughout the city. The measure would have effectively raised Barstow’s total sales tax rate from 7.75 percent to 8.25 percent, given that the statewide tax rate is 7.25 percent and all San Bernardino County residents pay another half cent sales tax as a consequence of the Measure I tax override first approved in 1989 and which was renewed in 2004. The proceeds of the half cent tax were to be devoted exclusively to redress budget issues impacting the Barstow Fire Protection District, which is now a division of the city and runs the Barstow Fire Department.
The Barstow Fire Department’s financial fix is in large measure a function of a string of decisions made by Barstow’s political leadership in the last decade.
Traditionally, the Barstow Fire Protection District was an independent agency dedicated to providing fire protection within its jurisdiction and was unaffiliated with any other agency or governmental entity. As such, the district was a self-sustaining one that had to live within the means available to it. This translated into what were more modest salaries and benefit packages for its employees than were available in larger districts and even small municipal departments within San Bernardino County.
In a split vote taken at a special joint meeting in March 2010, Barstow’s city council and the separate fire protection district board voted to merge the district with the city. In this way, the city took on responsibility for the fire district’s entire jurisdiction, which included everything within the Barstow City Limits as well as some areas outside the city. The board for the district, which voted 4-1 in favor of the move with board member Paul Courtney opposed, was somewhat more enthusiastic about the takeover than was the city council, which voted in favor of the merger 3-1, with councilman Tim Saenz abstaining and councilman Tim Silva opposed.
Representations made to justify having the city absorb the department were that the takeover would ensure local control of the department, better service and save money.
It does not appear that this last rationale was fulfilled.
In 2011, the fire district became a part of the city. Fire department employees, who were still paid at the rates they received previously, overnight became municipal employees. The city undertook a routine study of the city’s classification of its employees and their compensation which showed fire personnel were being paid less than other city employees. The firefighters, who had previously been willing to work for the pay provided by the district, were beset with a newfound sense of deprivation upon learning that they were in many cases making less money than their municipal colleagues, including some members of the clerical and maintenance divisions.
According to the classification and compensation study, the results of which were accepted by the city council in October 2012, beginning firefighters received 42 percent less pay than beginning police officers, and there was a further discrepancy that “occurs through the rank of fire captain, with the majority of Barstow’s employees being compensated at a higher rate than fire captain.”
The Barstow Professional Firefighters Association, the union representing the firefighters, began pressuring city manager Curt Mitchell and members of the council, calling for pay and benefit increases that would put the fire department personnel on a par with those working in other cities and fire districts around the county.
Despite the pronounced intent of the city council in voting for the takeover in 2010 that the move would reduce costs, the council in October agreed to a negotiated settlement that went into effect on January 1, 2013, such that Barstow joined the ranks of cities paying the going rate, that is, union-scale wages to its firefighting staff. The increase in pay meant that at that time the pay of an entry level firefighter before overtime went from $4,000 per month or $48,000 per year to a minimum of $4,500 monthly or $54,000 per year. The contract called for firefighters making a nine percent contribution to their retirement fund. All higher ranking members of the department – firefighter paramedics, field training officers, fire inspectors, battalion chiefs, fire engineers, fire captains, and fire captain specialists – made even more money.
Additionally, the promises to firefighters with regard to enhanced retirement packages have resulted in retired firefighters being eligible in most cases for pensions exceeding $75,000 per year.
At present, the city’s cost of employing a single firefighter full time with overtime, including salary and benefits runs close to $160,000 per year, on average. At present Barstow firefighters are making somewhat less than their counterparts in some fire departments elsewhere such as Rancho Cucamonga and Ontario, which are particularly generous toward their firefighters. In the case of Rancho Cucamonga, three of its council members are retired firefighters, each of whom is pulling a pension of over $100,000 per year. Ontario has a single firefighter as one of its members, who likewise draws a pension exceeding $100,000 yearly. Barstow firefighters nevertheless are closing the gap in terms of salary and benefits paid to their firefighting brethren in the county’s more affluent areas. The pensions they collect upon retirement are calculated as a percentage of their final annual salaries. Fire departments generally have a policy of promoting their personnel into higher and higher ranks with accompanying increases in salary, thereby boosting those firefighters’ pensions upon retirement. Public safety retirees are provided with a pension that is a percentage – usually three percent – of their highest yearly salary and add-ons times the number of years they have been employed. In this way, a public safety employee who remains with a city for 33 years will be eligible for a pension of 99 percent of his or her highest salary for the rest of his or her life.
It is this phenomenon that has put the City of Barstow behind the eight ball financially and why it is now turning to its residents for a bail out.
Promoters of the tax are confident they can achieve passage of the tax as this time it will not be asking voters to approve a specific purpose tax but rather a general tax.
It is a peculiarity of California law that proposed taxes that are earmarked for application for a specific purpose cannot be approved with a simple majority of those to be taxed but rather must receive approval by a two-thirds margin.
Conversely, if voters are asked to approve a general tax, that is one in which the funds to be generated are to be expended at the discretion of the local government’s governing body on any programs or services that body – which in this case would be the Barstow City Council – deems fit, that tax need be approved by a simple majority vote, that is a bare minimum of one vote more than fifty percent.
2017’s Measure J, which asked Barstow’s citizens to impose on themselves an additional half cent sales tax, came tantalizingly close to meeting the two-thirds approval threshold. It was supported by 1,342 or 65.24 percent of the city’s voters.
Proponents of Measure J last year and of the taxing proposal to go before the voters in November point out that Barstow’s location on the 15 Freeway between the greater Los Angeles Area and Las Vegas puts it in a perfect position to yield significant sales tax revenue from those passing through the city, and that the average Barstow resident who does not purchase any big ticket items in town will only pay an average of $47 a year, as a result of the tax.
Significantly, Councilman Silva, the one member of the city council who was most resistant to and cautious about having the city take on the financial burden of higher salaries and pensions for retiring firefighters in 2012, was in support of seeking to defray the greater costs that have now come home to roost as a result of the fire department budget that is spiraling beyond the city government’s grasp in 2018.
Without explicitly committing to using the money that will become available if the measure passes in November in shoring up the fire department, Barstow officials hinted that was what they would do.
“A majority of residents want to save the fire district,” Silva said. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Other members of the council were a little more circumspect, as an-on-the-record commitment by the council to use the money for the specific purpose of backfilling the fire department’s budget might require that the measure be deemed a specific purpose taxing one.
Former Barstow Mayor Lawrence Dale dwelt on the paradox of having a half cent tax add-on rejected by the city’s voters in 2017 year and the boldness with which the council is in 2018 seeking a full cent tax enhancement this year. “Last year, you asked for a half-cent,” Dale said. “Now you’re asking for a whole cent. The city feels like it [is] free to do whatever you want to do. I am adamantly opposed to this measure.”
All voters in Barstow will be eligible to cast a vote on the tax measure on November 6. Barstow voters in two of the city’s newly drawn districts will also have the opportunity to participate in the municipal election by electing those who will represent them on the city council over the following four years.
Mark Gutglueck

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