Residents of nine of San Bernardino County’s unincorporated communities are observing with some degree of misgiving the way in which the board of supervisors appears to be maneuvering out from underneath a commitment the county’s recently departed fire chief made to them last year.
At stake is whether in either the short term or the long term they will be required to bear merely a single or perhaps a multitude of assessments for public safety services.
Fire Protections Zone Five, known as FP-5, was originally formed in 2006, 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.
Between 2015 and 2017, four of the county’s incorporated municipalities – San Bernardino, Twentynine Palms, Needles and Upland – at the direction of their respective city councils, closed out their traditional municipal or local fire departments and had the entirety of their city limits annexed into FP-5, entailing each parcel owner in those jurisdictions paying an annual assessment of approximately $150 to have the county fire department provide those communities, under the auspices of FP-5, firefighting and emergency medical service. In each of those four cases, the existing local or municipal fire departments were shuttered.
Last year a proposal to expand FP-5 to cover 19,078 square miles of unincorporated land in the county was made and ultimately approved by a 3-to-2 vote of the board of supervisors in October. As in the cases of San Bernardino, Twentynine Palms, Needles and Upland, residents were not given the opportunity to vote on approving the annexation of their community into the assessment zone/service zone. Those transitions were legally effectuated by the conducting of a so-called protest process. During a one month period, those landowners or residents to be annexed into the annexation zone were permitted to lodge a protest against the annexation. If 25 percent of the residents or voters or landowners in the areas to be annexed had lodged a written protest with the government, then a vote on the formation would have been held. If fifty percent had lodged a written protest, then the annexation would have been nixed outright. Since fewer than two percent of the citizenry offered any protest, the annexation last year proceeded without a hitch. Essentially, any resident, landowner or registered voter in one of the districts to be annexed who did not lodge a protest in effect cast a vote in favor of the zone expansion.
In the run up to that protest period, then-County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig advocated for the massive annexation into FP-5. Hartwig acknowledged that a major impetus toward the FP-5 expansion was the need to address a $29 million shortfall in the county fire department’s budget. In an effort to garner support for the annexation, Hartwig scheduled and then attended 19 meetings covering 26 of the county’s unincorporated communities, during which he made his pitch for the FP-5 expansion. In the course of those meetings, Hartwig offered his assurance that if FP-5 were to expand to all of the county’s unincorporated areas including existing fire protection or paramedic service zones, those pre-existing zones “will go away” once replaced by FP-5 and the county would not “stack” service zones on top of one another.
In March, Hartwig left his position as San Bernardino County fire chief to become the fire chief in Santa Barbara County.
Departing with Hartwig, apparently, was the assurance that San Bernardino County will not layer FP-5 on top of other public safety zones, and the taxes that come with it.
With the county board of supervisors’ action last year, FP-5 grew to encompass 94 percent of the county’s landmass.
Built into FP-5 is the county’s authority to increase the service zone assessment by up to three percent annually. On May 21, the board of supervisors delayed action on doing just that in the coming fiscal year, which consisted of agenda item number 134, by which the current $157.26 FP-5 Zone assessment would have been upped by $4.72 to $161.98. It is anticipated that the increase will be adopted shortly, perhaps at the board’s next meeting.
The documentation accompanying item 134 for the May 21 meeting stated, “On October 16, 2018 (Item No. 58), the Board of Directors [i.e., the Board of Supervisors] adopted a resolution that expanded the boundaries of Service Zone FP-5. As part of this expansion, SBCFPD [the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District] stated that all current paramedic (PM) and fire protection (FP) service zones would be replaced by Service Zone FP-5. The October 16th item did not, however, dissolve the other PM and FP service zones.”
Thus, four paramedic special tax service zones covering Lake Arrowhead, Highland, Yucaipa, and Crestline remain in place as do five fire protection special tax zones covering Red Mountain, Windy Acres, El Mirage, Wonder Valley, and Havasu Lake, all of which exist within the overarching FP-5 zone.
While the report/recommendation presented to the board of supervisors in conjunction with item 134 did state, “The 2019-20 recommended budget will not include any revenue from Service Zones PM-1, PM-2, PM-3, PM-4, FP-1, FP-2, FP-3, FP-4 and FP-6 because these special taxes will not be placed on the 2019-20 tax roll,” that appears to be in conflict with California law relating to fire districts. Health & Safety Code Section 13899 states, “All taxes and assessments … shall be computed and entered on the county assessment roll and collected at the same time and in the same manner as other county taxes.” If the assessment district exists, the assessment must be collected.
It is unclear why the county is hesitating in eradicating or decommissioning the current paramedic and fire protection service zones. By keeping them in place, county officials reserve the option of preserving the revenue the county derives from those zones.
Given Hartwig’s departure, county officials may not consider themselves bound to stand by the pledge he made in his capacity as fire chief last year.