County Sued Over Expanding Fire Assessments Into Unincorporated Zones

San Bernardino County officials’ ploy to place virtually all residents and landowners in the county’s unincorporated rural areas into a fire service zone and impose on them assessments they were never before required to pay has prompted a citizens interest group to challenge the move in court.
In a two-year period from 2015 to 2017, government officials in the cities of San Bernardino, Twentynine Palms, Needles and Upland closed out their municipal or locally-controlled fire departments and used agency-to-agency privilege to have the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission give its blessing to annexing the entirety of those cities into the county’s Fire Prevention Zone Five (FP-5), which was originally formed to provide firefighting service to the desert communities of Helendale and Silverlakes. Accompanying each of those annexations, all of those cities’ landowners were placed into an assessment district which entailed the imposition of a $147-to-$153 per parcel per year levy. In each case, that added tax was 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 cities, the closures of the municipal/local fire departments were approved, the annexations were made and the assessments are now being placed on each landowner’s annual property tax bill in addition to the other property taxes already assessed against those properties. In this way, the cities of San Bernardino, Upland and Needles, which had previously covered the cost of providing fire protection to those communities by disbursements from their municipal general funds, transferred that financial burden to their citizens and realized a windfall equal to what the proceeds from the newly imposed assessments totaled. Many considered this to be highly unethical and/or illegal maneuvering that violated the California Constitution, which requires that all taxes be approved in a vote by those to bear those taxes. In Twentynine Palms, the fire department had not previously been operated by the city but rather the water district, which utilized a special tax previously approved by the community’s voters to defray the cost of fire protection service.
In June, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors in a 3-to-2 vote with supervisors James Ramos, Josie Gonzales and Curt Hagman prevailing over supervisors Janice Rutherford and Robert Lovingood ratified the expansion of Fire Prevention Zone Five to cover 19,078 square miles of unincorporated land in the county. That expansion brought all of the county with the exception of the incorporated areas of Chino Hills, Chino, Montclair, Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga, Rialto, Colton, Loma Linda, Highland, Redlands, Big Bear, Apple Valley, Barstow and federally-controlled land in the mountains and desert into the county’s fire service jurisdiction. Already, the cities of Upland, Fontana, Grand Terrace, San Bernardino, Hesperia, Victorville, Adelanto, Yucaipa, Yucca Valley, Twentynine Palms and Needles and multiple unincorporated areas of the county are within the county fire department’s service area.
The expansion of FP-5, which was recommended by County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig, would impose a $157.26 per year assessment on all parcels in the unincorporated areas of the county and add $26.9 million dollars per year in revenue to the county’s fire protection division. The county is in the process of finalizing the annexation process.
Members of the Red Brennan Group, however, have taken exception to the county’s action. That organization, named after the late government reform advocate Kiernan “Red” Brennan, maintains the Fire Prevention Zone Five expansion is illegal, unfair, and symptomatic of the county’s lack of respect for its citizens, landowners and taxpayers.
Accordingly, the Red Brennan Group partnered with the Lucerne Valley Economic Development Association, along with other named residents and landowners to file an injunction against the county to halt the FP-5 expansion. The suit contends that the expanded zone, which would be imposed only on landowners in the unincorporated areas, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution. Additionally, Fire Protection Zone Five includes a special tax implemented without a vote of the affected landowners, a clear violation of the California Constitution, the Red Brennan Group asserts.
Fire Chief Hartwig’s recommendation was offered as a solution to cover the county fire department’s ever increasing budget requirements which have accelerated sharply in the past four years. During his presentation to the board of supervisors in June, Chief Hartwig identified a $29 million shortfall for the 2018-19 fiscal year and projected continued deficits even with the additional funding created by expanding FP-5.
San Bernardino County officials believe the additional tax is justified because, they say, unincorporated areas of the county do not pay their fair share for fire services. Unincorporated residents see it differently. The Red Brennan coalition points to the county fire department’s annual reports to demonstrate that fire suppression and firefighting resources have migrated away from the desert and mountain regions. For example, personnel assigned to these areas have decreased by a combined total of 108 employees since 2011. These regions contain the bulk of the unincorporated area of the county and would be, alone, saddled with the new tax. Budget requirements in the county’s valley region, which is composed largely of incorporated areas, have sky-rocketed during the same period. Budget authority for the valley region increased from $29 million in 2011 to $107 million for 2018. This is an increase of almost 260 percent in seven years.
County Supervisors James Ramos, Curt Hagman, and Josie Gonzales voted in favor of the FP-5 resolution. Given that the districts overseen by supervisors Ramos, Gonzales and Hagman include heavily populated areas of the valley region, they appear to have been willing to go along with the fire chief’s recommendation because their affirmative vote could ultimately increase funding to the county fire department and decrease pressure on the county general fund simply by placing a special tax squarely on the backs of landowners in the unincorporated areas which lie primarily beyond their districts. Because the constituent bases that Ramos, Hagman and Gonzales represent consist mostly of voters living in incorporated areas, there is little prospect that they will face a political risk from residents in their districts as a consequent of their June vote.
The Red Brennan Group contends the resolution to expand Fire Protection Zone Five as approved by the county board of supervisors violates both the California and United States Constitution. The organization, along with the Lucerne Valley Economic Development association and other residents of the county, has asked the court for an injunction to halt the process.
Those seeking more information about the legal action or who are interested in filing an amicus brief in support of the petitioners can liaison with the Red Brennan Group through Tom Murphy at (760) 810-5830 or email him at Additional information is available at episodes 19 through 24. The YouTurn Radio Program is broadcast live on Sunday afternoon at 2:00 PM on AM frequency 1050 or 102.3 and 106.5 FM.
Mark Gutglueck

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