MORONGO BASIN — A nonprofit group says it will sue San Bernardino County over the new $157 fire department fee to be levied on most properties in the Morongo Basin starting next year.
The annual fee will be charged next year to properties in the fire department’s Service Zone FP-5, which was expanded earlier this month by a vote of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors. Everyone in the Morongo Basin is now in the zone except for Morongo Valley, which has its own fire department.
“We’re trying to maintain the status quo where FP-5 is not expanded and the tax is not imposed on thousands of people who did not vote for it,” said Sean Wade, attorney for the Red Brennan Group.
The group tried to stop the board’s vote by asking for a temporary restraining order on Oct. 11, but a judge ruled against them.
“The judge denied our application for a temporary restraining order, but the suit is still active and we are bringing further legal action in the coming weeks,” Wade said.
“They haven’t been served yet but they will be very soon.”
The Red Brennan Group is based in Wrightwood, but spokesman Tom Murphy said it is working with the Johnson Valley Improvement Association and Homestead Valley Community Council, which represents Yucca Mesa, Landers, Flamingo Heights and Johnson Valley.
The new charge, defined as a fee by county officials, was passed after affected property owners got mail notices that they could download online protest ballots and mail them in to try to prevent the zone expansion.
Just 3.2 percent of affected landowners sent in protests, according to the company hired to count ballots.
But critics said the fire department was wrong to require property owners to download and print their protests. “They made the assumption that everybody could get the form off the internet and that was really unreasonable,” Claudia Sall, of Pioneertown, said during the Oct. 16 public hearing where the fee was approved.
Wade said he will also argue that the fee is actually a special tax, which by state law needs a two-thirds approval of registered voters.
“What we’re hoping is that we’ll get a judge to look at the full merits of the case and decide essentially the tax was enacted in a manner that was unconstitutional and it shouldn’t exist,” he said
Tracey Martinez, spokeswoman for the county fire department, said they stand by the protest process.
“Our position remains the same, that the fire district board of directors is authorized to expand the fire service zone under fire protection district law of 1987,” Martinez said.
“At the direction of the fire board, San Bernardino County Fire Protection District will continue forward with the approved FP-5 special tax levy, which will be applied to the 2019 tax roll,” Martinez said.