MORONGO BASIN — Property owners everywhere in the Morongo Basin except Morongo Valley will be charged $157.26 per year for fire services under a plan approved 3-2 by the county board of supervisors at the end of a public hearing Tuesday.

The county fire department will expand one of its zones, FP-5, across most of San Bernardino County, bringing with it the annual $157.26 fee, which can be raised up to 3 percent each year.

“It’s bittersweet,” Fire Chief Mark Hartwig said after the expansion was approved.

“I don’t think you could listen to four hours of testimony and conversations with community members in the halls who clearly have a hardship and not be concerned for them,” the chief said.

Hartwig acknowledged the fee is a bitter pill. “Nobody has an extra $157.26 lying around that they want someone to come in and take.”

In a Yucca Valley meeting in August, Hartwig told members of the public that the fire department might use some of its new revenue to move the fire station on Aberdeen Drive in Yucca Mesa closer to Twentynine Palms Highway in Yucca Valley.

Fire department spokeswoman Tracey Martinez said Wednesday no firm plans have been made.

“We will be looking at the computer model to make sure our response times are meeting the needs of the community and if it’s necessary to move that station to better serve our community,” Martinez said.

“We do things like that all the time. Communities grow, so it’s necessary to continually make sure that our stations are placed in the right location.”

No decision has been made yet, she said. “That station may not move, but it is important to note that at this time, the chief is not planning on closing that station.”

3 percent protest new fee

The fire district used a protest process to take a vote of property owners who would be affected. Property owners could download protest forms from the Internet and then mail them into the county. If a quarter of affected property owners who owned a quarter of the value of the affected land sent in protests, the FP-5 expansion would have to be approved by a public election. If half protested, it would be canceled outright.

Instead, just 3.2 percent of landowners sent in protest ballots, according to the company hired to count ballots.

The county sent more than 368,000 notices instructing landowners on how to protest. The county received 15,130 protest forms by the Tuesday deadline and 11,472 of those were verified.

That’s about 3.2 percent of affected property owners, representing less than 2 percent of the assessed land value — far too little to trigger a public vote.

‘That doesn’t seem fair’

Despite the low rate of return of ballots, the public hearing Tuesday was packed with citizens decrying the new fee and saying the voting process was rigged.

“You have selected the most unfair way to assess this tax,” Celeste Doyle, of Joshua Tree, said. “A flat tax per parcel, regardless of value or proximity of services, is just bogus.

“You have also selected the most difficult way for the property owners to resist this imposed tax,” she said.

“The protest form was not included in the notices; you need a printer, a computer and internet access to get it and there’s a time limitation here.”

“They made the assumption that everybody could get the form off the internet and that was really unreasonable,” agreed Claudia Sall, of Pioneertown. “It should have been provided with the mailing.”

Other speakers said they own several pieces of undeveloped land and the cost of the annual fee on each parcel outweighs the value of the property.

“You’re asking me to pay $157 per parcel on pieces of ground that have no value,” said Ron Clark.

“The guy with the million-dollar home is going to be paying a much smaller percentage than the guy with the $15,000 piece of property. That doesn’t seem fair.”

Chief told he can't rely on general fund

Hartwig said the new fee is needed because the fire department runs over budget every year and has relied on the county board of supervisors to fill the gap using money from the general fund. Last year, the deficit was $11.9 million.

Hartwig said the fire department with its many zones and fees was created by the Local Agency Formation Commission in 2003. Commission leaders acknowledge they knew it would never take in enough money to survive unless the county board of supervisors filled in shortfalls from the general fund — or if citizens approved a new property tax.

But when he was appointed fire chief, he said, he was told to come up with a way to stop relying on money from the general fund each year.

“The CEO, as I sat with him when I was appointed and we discussed goals … the biggest priority was to find a way to live with the revenue the fire district produces — in other words, to find a way off the general fund,” Hartwig said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Josie Gonzales, supervisor for the 5th District, made her position clear on the general fund spending during Tuesday’s hearing.

“I need to make it perfectly clear that as far as I am concerned, I will no longer support San Bernardino County fire receiving financial assistance from the general fund,” she said.

If the fire department had to operate on the revenue it gets today, Hartwig told the board he would have to close more stations, which would add anything from minutes to hours to response times.

The projected revenue from this charge is about $27 million per year. The fee could be increased by as much as 3 percent each year by a vote of the board of supervisors.

(8) comments

Blayd

Remind me again what property taxes are for in un-incorporated areas of San Bernardino County? Fire and Safety...nope! Dog and Cat Hotels, moving libraries, other wasteful spending...Evidently so. Hopefully pending lawsuit(s) will prevail to protect the hardworking taxpayers of San Bernardino County.

CheRojo

The outcome was rigged when they sent notices, but not protest forms. Ramos continues to be completely useless as "our" supervisor.

Blayd

The outcome was rigged when our elected officials were granted the power via LAFCO to assess a "fee", and then did their research in the best way to ensure what they PASSED AT THEIR MEETING was not undone or even understood. Even this articles headline isn't echnically correct. The passed item wasn't rejected by the taxpayers due to the shell game that was played. It wasn't just Ramos that rammed this through. It took many of our elected "leaders" to perform this money grab. End result, no end to wasteful spending.

Branson Hunter

I've been an unwavering supporter if Supervisor Ramos. Not any longer...
I like the way the county says boo hoo to all of us trying to survive, while they are living like a privileged class of public funds. The chief needs to go fishing and never return to his office.

Dadof4

Ramos is a Democrat, Democrats love taxes, even taxes hidden as fees. Ramos is not a good supervisor nor our friend.

Dadof4

Branson, see what happens when you support Tax-o-crats like Ramos. Sooner or later they are going to tax you until you can't take it anymore.

BBB

Yeah, and lots of folks scam the system to not pay their fair share, notably our commander-and-chief. Most small businesses (sole proprietors ) cheat the system thanks to tax "reform" pushed by conservatives like Grover Norquist. You self-employed Dado? If you are, how are you cheating the system. It's very simple, just do like a local barber that keeps two sets of books because he's strictly a cash business. You may believe Dems love taxes, but Repubs have the upper hand in cheating the system.
The state should look at revamping the commercial property tax so owners are taxed on the current property value. Then there would be more revenue for schools and our buddies at the fire house.

Branson Hunter

Oh, so 11,472 verified protest no votes, and zero yes votes. Up or down vote wins! LAFCO, county fire and the county all are numb and silent to the horrible un-American grab on our homes. T

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