County Annexes 19,078 Square Miles And 368,000 Parcels Into Fire Assessment District

The trend toward layering never-before-imposed assessments on landowners to augment funding for fire department operations continued apace this week, with the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors voting 3-to-2 to expand Fire Prevention Zone Five to cover 19,078 square miles of unincorporated land in the county.
Fire Protections Zone Five, known as FP-5, was originally formed more than a decade ago, as a construct for the county fire department to provide the desert communities of Silverlakes and Helendale with firefighting and emergency medical service. The creation of FP-5 carried with it the annexation of Silverlakes and Helendale into a fire service assessment zone, which required that landowners within those two communities’ confines pay yearly assessments to defray the cost of the fire department’s operations therein.
In 2015, a majority of the San Bernardino City Council, frustrated with that bankrupt city’s inability going back several years to negotiate lower salary and benefits for the city’s firefighters, used the strategy of closing out its municipal fire department and annexing the entirety of the city into FP-5 to cut costs. In so doing, all of that city’s landowners were required to assume a $147 per year parcel tax on top of existing property taxes. In rapid succession over the next two years, the cities of Needles, Twentynine Palms and Upland likewise closed out their municipal or local fire departments and annexed their geographical confines into FP-5, likewise entailing a $147-to-$153 per parcel tax on their respective landowners.
This ploy miffed a wide cross section of people in those communities in that the money those cities previously expended from their general funds to run their fire departments was kept by the cities and diverted to other uses, while the residents were forced to henceforth pay for a basic service – fire department operations – that had historically been a municipal feature. The only exception to this was Twentynine Palms, where the water district operated the fire department. The cities’ pocketing of that money and the imposition of the newly created assessments was seen as an expansion of those cities’ and the county’s taxing authority. That ran counter to the principle in the California Constitution of requiring that any new tax first be approved by a majority of those to bear the burden of paying that tax.
Those cities and the county maneuvered around this requirement by having the assessments ratified not by a traditional vote but rather by what is called a “protest process” in which each landowner was given mailed notice of a one-month “protest period,” during which the county would accept letters protesting the creation of the assessment district. Each such letter was tallied as a vote against the annexation and assessment imposition. Each landowner who did not deliver a letter of protest was deemed to be in support of the annexation and assessments being levied, and a vote ratifying folding those cities into Fire Prevention Zone Five was cast on their behalf.
In all of those previous annexations going back to 2015 there was considerable discontent among landowners and residents, but sufficient protest letters were not generated to prevent the annexations. In the case of the Upland annexation, the neighboring unincorporated community of San Antonio Heights was included. In response, a number of residents banded together under the aegis of the San Antonio Homeowners Association and sued the City of Upland and the County of San Bernardino over the forced annexation. That suit is yet wending its way through the litigative process.
Using County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig’s recommendation to annex the 19,078 square miles of unincorporated county land and some 368,000 landowners into FP-5 to address a $29 million budget shortfall as a justification, the board of supervisors in June voted 3-2 to initiate the process to expand the zone. Those supporting the annexation were supervisors Josie Gonzales, James Ramos and Curt Hagman. Opposing it were supervisors Janice Rutherford and Robert Lovingood.
Each of the annexed parcel owners will pay $157 per year, and county officials calculate the assessments will generate $26.9 million annually.
At the board of supervisors meeting on Tuesday, county officials said 11,472 verified protest letters, entailing objections by 3.18 percent of the more than 368,000 property owners and representing 1.97 percent of the assessed land value involved had been received. Had 25 percent of the impacted landowners registered protests, by law a traditional vote would have needed to be conducted. If more than 50 percent had weighed in against the annexation, no annexation would have taken place.
According to Hartwig, in September the county fire department mailed notices of the pending annexation to more than 368,000 property owners countywide. With the 25 percent protest threshold not having been met, the board was legally entitled to ratify the annexation. Before it did so, on Tuesday the board heard four hours of input from the public, all of which inveighed against proceeding with the annexations.
Ultimately, however, Supervisor Hagman made a motion to proceed with the annexation, seconded by Supervisor Gonzales. Supervisor James Ramos then joined with them in casting an affirmative vote, the annexation passing by the same 3-to-2 margin by which the process was initiated in June.
The Red Brennan Group, an organization, named after the late government reform advocate Kiernan “Red” Brennan, last week had filed a petition with the San Bernardino County Superior Court for an injunction seeking to halt the board of supervisors from proceeding with the annexation process. That petition was denied by the court. After Tuesday’s vote, Tom Murphy, the official spokesman for the Red Brennan Group, told the Sentinel it is the organization’s contention that the annexation being effectuated without an actual vote is a violation of the California Constitution. “In response to the County of San Bernardino’s violation of the California Constitution, the Red Brennan Group will continue its court challenge to FP-5,” Murphy said. “Civic organizations interested in joining the lawsuit as plaintiffs are invited to contact the organization at (760) 810-5830 or”
Mark Gutglueck

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