Measure To Rescind Fire Service Assessment Headed For The November Ballot

A ballot measure to appeal an assessment that was placed on all properties within San Bernardino County’s unincorporated areas will go before the county’s voters in November.
On March 25, San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters Bob Page informed the leadership of the group sponsoring a petition drive to qualify a ballot measure to repeal the tax, which was imposed on land owners in all of the county’s unincorporated without a prior vote, that their petition to force the matter to an election was endorsed by a sufficient number of valid voter signatures to be binding on his office, which serves as the county’s election authority.
In June of 2018, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors initiated the process of expanding the boundaries of County Fire Protection Zone 5 to include all private property within the county’s unincorporated areas, amounting to some 95 percent of San Bernardino County’s 20,105 total square miles, or roughly 19,100 square miles. The overlaying of County Fire Protection Zone 5 on those properties entailed the levying of a special tax of $157.26 per parcel on all unincorporated property owners in the county. The plan, floated by senior leadership within the county’s governmental structure, was to use state law applying to fire districts as a method to increase tax revenue.
The county’s action had taken place after previous efforts beginning in 2015 and concluding in 2017 to overlay County Fire Protection Zone 5, which was originally formed in 2006 as a means of funding the San Bernardino County Fire Department’s provision of fire prevention/suppression/protection service to the adjoining unincorporated county communities of Helendale and Silverlakes, onto the area within the city limits of the cities of San Bernardino, Twentynine Palms, Needles and Upland/adjoining unincorporated San Antonio Heights. Those four separate actions had been carried out through a process overseen by the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission. The city councils in San Bernardino, Needles and Upland, as well as the water district in Twentynine Palms, which had overseen that community’s fire department, sought to unload their ownership of, management and responsibility for each of their respective fire departments to the county. Those annexations had carried with them the imposition of assessments on the parcel owners within those jurisdictions to pay for the county fire department’s provision of service, taxes which had previously not been assessed. To get around the California Constitutional requirement that all taxes must first be approved by those upon whom they are to be levied, the cities, the county and the Local Agency Formation Commission carried out what was referred to as 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 the cities of San Bernardino and Upland, those entities thereafter committed to turning over a percentage of their property tax as part of the deal, and pocketed the difference between the savings realized from the closure of the fire department and the loss of a percentage of property tax each had committed to the county, as the city’s residents, business operators and property owners were at that point paying the lion’s share of the freight with regard to the provision of fire service. The city was free to use the money it netted as it deemed necessary, which in practical terms in both Upland and San Bernardino meant paying down substantial costs in defraying `pensions to retired municipal employees.
Upland, the San Bernardino County Local Formation Commission and the county had rolled the unincorporated 2.619-square mile community of San Antonio Heights that adjoins Upland into the annexation. San Antonio Heights, since it was not a part of any city, was already provided with fire service by the county fire department. San Antonio Heights residents took stock of the consideration that the annexation would change nothing for them service-wise, and would not improve the level of care the community would receive while imposing on them an annual $150 per parcel assessment they had never paid before. Indeed, so animated about what was going to be imposed upon them, a large number of the residents of San Antonio Heights protested mightily. Aided by the consideration that the community is a relatively compact one with a population of 3,371 of whom 1,561 were registered to vote, before the one-month protest period had run contact was made with virtually all of the residents and landowners by those militating against the annexation. Consequently, a number well above the 50 percent plus one threshold to reject the Fire Protection Zone 5 takeover manifested in San Antonio Heights, and those residents and landowners registered letters of protest accordingly. Because, however, the San Antonio Heights annexation was bundled together with the annexation of Upland, and because fewer than 2 percent of the landowners and voters in 74,000 population Upland lodged letters of protest, the annexation was allowed to occur. Thereafter, a group of San Antonio Heights Residents banded together as the San Antonio Heights Homeowners Association and filed suit against the annexation of their community into Fire Protection Zone 5. Ultimately, Judge David Cohn in February 2019 ruled in favor of the San Antonio Heights Homeowners Association in the case it had brought against the City of Upland, the County of San Bernardino and the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission, excusing the totality of San Antonio Heights from being annexed into Fire Protection Zone 5 and each of its property owners having to pay the $150 parcel tax.
County officials, having seen how easily the expansion of County Fire Protection Zone 5 could be effectuated, the experience with San Antonio Heights not outstanding, calculated that it could replicate the expansion to cover 95 percent of the county’s land mass. The county had an incentive for doing so in that it needed to close a gap in the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District’s budget. Senior county leadership reasoned such a scheme could be carried off without voter approval by again utilizing the protest procedure. Accordingly, county officials simply overlaid all unincorporated land in the county with Fire Protection Zone 5. The total of proceeds to be realized from the Fire Protection Zone 5 expansion would yield a $26.9 million increase to County Fire’s coffers – with the potential to increase at three percent per year indefinitely.
In October 2018, the county finalized the countywide unincorporated property annexation ploy begun that June, not only outmaneuvering San Antonio Heights residents but essentially requiring that every property owner living outside of the county’s 24 incorporated municipalities pay the annual $157.26 per parcel tax, which was subject to a 3 percent annual inflation increase.
Last summer, the Red Brennan Group, which is composed of several individuals who were associated with the late tax reduction and government reform advocate Kiernan Brennan, together with three residents of the unincorporated county area agreeing to sponsor an initiative –  Charles Pruitt, Rick Sayers, and David Jarvi – informed the county and gave legal notice of their intention to circulate a petition to put a ballot measure before the county’s voters in its unincorporated area seeking the repeal of the special tax associated with Fire Protection Zone 5.
In the course of the more-than-five-month campaign, the Red Brennan Group gathered more than 34,000 signatures on the petitions it had circulated.
Registrar of Voters Bob Page’s March 25 letter informed Pruitt, Sayers and Jarvi that his office “has found the petition to be sufficient.”
According to an accompanying certificate of initiative petition, a copy of which was obtained by the Sentinel, the proponents submitted 3,740 separate pages of petitions bearing 32,017 signatures. The registrar of voters office undertook to survey three percent of the signatures on those petitions selected at random. Of those 961 signatures examined, one was determined to be a duplicate. Another 414 signatures were deemed insufficient for other causes, most, apparently, because the signees lived elsewhere in the county than in unincorporated areas. Another 546 were found to be sufficient, or valid. Thus, 56.8 percent of the signatures examined were valid.
Based upon the Sentinel’s calculations, by means of extrapolation using a 56.8 percent validity rate of the 961 signatures examined to the entirety of the 32,017 signatures, it would appear that 18,191 of the signatures were likely valid. The computation used by the registrar of voters office, however, projected that 17,114 of the signatures were valid.
As 8,110 signatures were needed to force the election, Page concluded that Pruitt, Sayer and Jarvi and the Red Brennan Group had obtained 211.02 percent of the number of signatures needed.
“The petition has been signed by the requisite number of qualified electors needed and based thereon is deemed sufficient,” the certificate states.
The petition is to go to the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, which serves as the San Bernardino County Fire District Board of Directors, for consideration. Under the California Elections Code the board has one of two options, the first of which is to approve the initiative as written, which calls for rescinding the fire tax. The board’s second option is to place the issue before the voters in November.
-Mark Gutglueck

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