Fire Tax Update
By Martin Estacio Staff Writer, VV Daily Press
Posted Dec 24, 2018 at 4:56 AM
—A lawsuit filed against the County in response to a parcel tax approved in October by the Board of Supervisors will go to court next month.
A hearing is scheduled Jan. 16 on a motion for a preliminary injunction to block the expansion of County Fire’s FP-5 Service Zone and levying of a $157.26 tax on all affected parcels, which are mostly in unincorporated communities.
The Red Brennan Group, a non-profit based in San Diego, joined by several community groups and residents as plaintiffs, assert that the levy is unconstitutional because it violates provisions set forth in propositions 13, 26, and 218.
According to the complaint, the propositions provide that “no local government may impose, extend, or increase any special tax unless and until that tax is submitted to the electorate and approved by a two-thirds vote.”
The group’s contention relies on a special tax approved in 2006 by voters in Helendale where the original FP-5 covered.
The special tax’s purpose was to convert the local fire station from paid-call to being fully staffed, 24/7.
Sean Wade, the attorney representing RBG, told the Daily Press the County is attempting to use this rationale to impose a tax on a much wider area.
“Rather than putting it to a vote, they are taking the super small district in Helendale and expanding it across 19,000 square miles,” he said.
The Board of Supervisors, in a 3-2 vote, approved the zone’s expansion on Oct. 16 after a marathon meeting/public hearing in which more than 60 residents spoke, mostly in opposition.
County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig first proposed the expansion to the Board in June to address a nearly $30 million budget shortfall and continue funding existing services.
According to court documents, the County argued the tax imposed in the expansion didn’t require a vote because the Fire Protection Law of 1987, which identifies the procedure for expanding a service zone, doesn’t require one.
And since a service zone expansion is “akin” to an annexation, annexed “property owners within the newly acquired area are also responsible for the taxes that existed before the expansion,” County counsel wrote.
A representative for San Bernardino County did not respond to a request for comment.
Wade and his clients opposed this argument. He said the County has referred to the parcel tax as a special tax in a resolution and in correspondence. Because they it “labeled” as such, it is required to be approved by a two-thirds vote, he said.
Plaintiffs also rejected a prior court decision cited by the County in solidifying the annexation position. The Fourth Appellate District court in that case sided with Huntington Beach when taxpayers in the annexed unincorporated community of Sunset Beach sued the city, protesting the imposition of existing taxes.
Wade said Sunset Beach didn’t apply. In that case, a city of around 190,000 people was annexing an area with less than a thousand residents.
“We think the situation here is very different. A very small amount of people using that [FP-5] district to oppress thousands and thousands of people,” he said.
Chuck Bell, president of the Lucerne Valley Economic Development Association, one of the parties in the suit, told the Daily Press he felt the expansion was “totally unfair.”
As an affected property owner in an unincorporated community, Bell dislike the fact the levy would be applied across the board on all parcels, whether they included a “hotel” or nothing.
“What’s to burn on a vacant parcel with nothing on it but a couple creosote bushes?” he asked.
MEstacio@VVDailyPress.com or at 760-955-5358. Follow him on @DP_mestacio
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