YUCCA VALLEY — Seven residents and most Town Council members spoke out against the fire department’s proposal to expand its zone 5 and charge a $156 annual fee Tuesday.
Several of the speakers said because 22 percent each property’s taxes goes to the county fire department already, they do not want to pay more.
“Yucca Valley property owners already pay one of the highest fire tax rates in the county,” said Donna Davies. “Why would anybody want to pay more and potentially get nothing for it?”
She described the protest process, which requires property owners to download and mail in a form.
“Personally I think it will take a miracle for this to happen. I sincerely hope I’m wrong.”
Councilman Jeff Drozd agreed with the criticisms of the process.
“The way this tax I feel is being shoved down our throats is wrong,” Drozd said. “I’m really more upset with the process than the tax.”
Cindy Pague, a resident of Yucca Valley for five years, read part of a complaint letter she sent to the board of supervisors. “The chaos of the fire tax and misinformation are immense,” she read.
“They are asking us to approve a fire tax before we know what the revenue will be used for, which is ludicrous.”
“I’m really in support of our fire and paramedics. I had to use them today for my daughter,” said real estate agent Candice Moulton. “That said, I don’t support rewarding bad behavior. … They’re just going to keep asking for more and more. When does it ever end?”
Tracey Martinez, a spokeswoman for the county fire department, responded to the charges that they aren’t budgeting well.
“We try our hardest to live within our budget, but there are unexpected expenses,” she said.
For instance, a recent large fire in Forest Falls just cost the fire department about $1 million.
“You have things like that that come up,” Martinez said.
“We have a need to replace stations, maybe upgrade stations, maybe add stations due to increases in housing.”
The county fire department gets its money from taxes, not contracts like the Sheriff’s Department has with Yucca Valley, which is increased each year without a public vote.
“The majority of the time, the tax base does not cover the costs of fire, rescue and emergency medical services, so the Board of Supervisors has had to augment our budget,” Martinez said. “And we cannot keep operating like that. It also takes away from other county needs.”
Some people at the meeting were concerned that the majority of the department budget goes to pensions. “Less than 17 percent of our entire budget goes to pensions,” Martinez responded.
The lone person speaking up in support of the proposal was Tami Roleff, a resident of the country club area who said her husband remembers watching the Sawtooth Complex Fire burning down the hills toward their house.
“I think firefighters are worth every single penny they earn,” she said.
“I support the fire tax. … I have no problem paying them money to save my house or my neighbor’s house.”
An extra $13 a month is a small price to pay for fire protection, Roleff said.
Taxes fall nearly $12 million short
The purpose of the fire zone expansion and new is to increase revenue to the county fire department, which has been operating over budget for the past few years and has had to ask the county board of supervisors to fill the gap using money from the general fund. Last year, the deficit was $11.9 million.
“We have two problems currently in the fire district,” Fire Chief Mike Hartwig said at a meeting in Yucca Valley in August.
“We survive off of revenue that we don’t generate within the fire district and when we do have areas that generate enough money, like Yucca Valley, they require better services and better facilities.”
If the service zone is expanded, property owners will be charged $157.26 per year regardless of the value of their property.
Peppering the comments about fire department funding Tuesday was also talk about wanting more services from the fire department.
“We should be putting more public service out there, more sheriffs, more fire,” Darrel Pague said. “We need them out there,” he said, pointing to the mesa area. “These fire houses that are empty, we need to man them.”
Town Manager Curtis Yakimow said the local government has been working with the county fire department because they want at least one new fire station in Yucca Valley.
“We’ve been in communication with the San Bernardino County fire office highlighting our desire for a replacement for station 41 as well as a fire station in the west end of the town,” he said.
“Irrespective of what happens with FP-5, be assured that town staff will continue those conversations,” Yakimow told the council.