On June 11, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors voted to take six days of food off the tables of county residents — and hand it over to County Fire.
According to the California Budget and Policy Center, a family of four in San Bernardino County spends $773 per month, or $25.77 per day, to feed itself.
Via a 4-1 vote, county supervisors approved placement of the Fire Prevention Zone Five (FP-5) special tax on the rolls for the next fiscal year. Residents located largely, but not entirely, in the unincorporated areas of the county will pay an additional $157.26 per year to fund County Fire — six days of meals for a family of four.
Hungry residents may have a chance to get those meals back after a multi-year wait. In response to the outcry from residents affected by the tax, the board modified the motion presented by County Fire. The motion initially called for a 3 percent increase in the FP-5 tax, to $161.98, in addition to placing the tax on the roll for the next fiscal year. The special tax was to remain on the rolls in perpetuity with the potential for a 3 percent increase each year.
Rather than grant the 3 percent increase, the board held the line at the current fiscal year charge and added two items to the resolution.
The motion, as amended by the board, “Directs the CEO and interim fire chief to explore funding mechanisms to pay for fire and emergency services in San Bernardino County that must be put to voters by Jan. 1, 2021, and return to the board within 90 days to discuss those funding alternatives.” In addition, the motion “directs staff to set a date on which funding for FP-5 will sunset.”
What is FP-5’s
In June of 2018, the board approved a course of action to expand Service Zone FP-5. The plan, floated by senior leadership within the county bureaucracy, was to use fire district law and expand FP-5 to include the entire unincorporated area of the county, along with some incorporated areas. Originally approved by 1,022 voters in Helendale, the tax tied to FP-5 is a per parcel special tax. The resulting annexation would yield a $26.9 million increase to County Fire’s coffers — with the potential to increase at 3 percent per year indefinitely.
Senior county leadership reasoned this scheme could also be accomplished without voter approval. By leveraging a poorly reasoned and overly broad interpretation of Citizens Association of Sunset Beach v. Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission, and borrowing a so-called “protest procedure,” the county concocted an approach to impose the tax without approval by residents.
There was, however, an inconvenient truth. Article XIII C, section 2, subsection d, of the Constitution of the State of California states:
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.
Affected residents, roused by this blatant attempt to circumvent their Constitutional rights, fought the expansion in both the political and legal arena over the course of the year.
What did county residents actually gain in their effort to assert their rights? The supervisors decided not to extract an additional $4.72 from county residents. They decided to place an illegal tax on the roll that was imposed in violation of the California Constitution. The board members then “gave” voters their rights by approving an unenforceable promise that would put a County Fire funding mechanism on a ballot by 2021 — two tax years and 36 meals down the road.
A thoughtful skeptic may find little to please, and much for concern in the board of supervisors motion.
EDITOR’S NOTE — A superior court judge ruled that the FP-5 tax was not unconstitutional.