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Fire protection parcel tax, regional agency sent to Nov. ballot

 

Last updated 8/21/2008 at Noon



A measure to create a regional fire protection agency and establish a parcel tax for fire protection will be on the November ballot.

A 5-0 San Diego County Board of Supervisors vote August 6 placed the measure on the ballot. The San Diego Regional Fire Protection Agency would be a joint powers agency (JPA) consisting of 10 board members while the parcel tax would apply to properties in incorporated cities as well as in the county’s unincorporated area.

All eligible voters within the county will be able to vote on the measure, which must receive two-thirds voter approval to pass.

“This gives our firefighters a better chance to do their job,” said Supervisor Ron Roberts, who is also the co-chair of the interjurisdictional Regional Fire Protection Committee. “It is simply the best thing that we can do now as we start to enter fire season.”

On July 22 the supervisors voted to receive the final report from the Regional Fire Protection Committee, to direct County Counsel to return to the supervisors on August 5 with the necessary documents to place the measure on the November ballot, and to set the August 5 public hearing date to place the parcel tax on the ballot.

Modifications at the August 5 hearing resulted in the drafting of a revised ordinance and the August 6 date to approve sending the ordinance to the ballot.

“The timing is not perfect. The proposal is not perfect. But one thing is certain,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob. “This proposal will make us better prepared for the next fire season.”

Concerns included the timing of the election, the governance structure of the proposed regional agency, and the annual escalation percentage.

The Regional Fire Protection Committee recommended a 21-member governing board consisting of one member from each incorporated city, one member of the Board of Supervisors, and two members representing fire protection districts.

The supervisors and fire service representatives sought a more equitable distribution between fire districts and cities, and the final proposal includes a 10-member board consisting of one county supervisor, one San Diego City Council member, four city council members from the county’s four suburban regions (East County, South Bay, North County Coastal, North County Inland), and four fire agency board members.

The ordinance language specifies “independent special district” rather than “fire protection district” for the fire agency members, allowing board members from municipal water districts which also provide fire protection to be eligible to serve on the JPA board.

The County Supervisor shall be from one of the two districts encompassing the most unincorporated area in the county, giving the board a makeup of five representatives from cities and five from unincorporated areas.

“People are going to have to work together,” said Supervisor Greg Cox.

“It forces compromise. It forces us to work together,” said San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, who co-chairs the Regional Fire Protection Committee with Roberts.

The board would also have five non-voting advisory members from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the US Forest Service, an Indian reservation fire department, the US Navy, and the US Marine Corps. The JPA may also add additional non-voting members to the board.

The tax will begin at $52 per year for parcels not exceeding 50 acres or 10,000 square feet. It will be adjusted annually based on the Consumer Price Index for San Diego County.

An additional $0.01 per square foot for each square foot of improvement exceeding 10,000 square feet (in addition to single-family residential properties, the parcel tax would also apply to apartments, condominiums, motels and hotels, commercial, office, and industrial properties) and an additional $1 per acre for each acre over 50 acres would also be assessed, although the total annual tax would be limited to $1,000 per parcel plus the annual increase.

The parcel tax would become effective on July 1, 2009, and would be added to property tax bills.

The initial proposal had a two percent annual escalation. The escalation itself was not opposed by any county supervisors, but Jacob felt that the equation to a dollar a week was misleading for a 30-year tax with an annual escalation.

“This is a tax. This is a $52-per-year parcel tax and one dollar per week only in the first year,” Jacob said.

The adjustment by the Consumer Price Index rather than by an automatic figure means that the tax could increase by more than two percent or by less than two percent. It would also provide for consistent purchasing ability.

“It should have at least the same buying power from year to year,” Cox said. “It will keep up with the cost of providing services.”

The Regional Fire Protection Committee consists of two supervisors, four mayors, and three fire chiefs and was formed in January.

The committee’s duties are to assess the regional needs for fire apparatus (including helicopters and other aircraft), regional communications, and surveillance technology and to evaluate possible funding sources, examine the initial and ongoing costs of various alternatives (such as leasing versus buying equipment), review government codes and other policies and ordinances as they relate to fire protection, and consider short-term and long-term options related to a regional fire authority.

The July 18 meeting committee recommended the lease of four fixed-wing aircraft at a current annual cost of $6,381,660 (plus $102,500 for a program manager) and the purchase of three helicopters, which would involve $35,000,000 for the purchase cost and an annual operation and maintenance estimate of $2,700,000.

The purchase of 25 fire engines, which would be owned by the regional authority but stationed at strategic locations and staffed by off-duty firefighters when needed, would address “surge capacity” and would cost between $8 million and$15 million.

The cost of a regional training facility is estimated at $4.5 million. The fire-related cost to upgrade the county’s Regional Communications System is estimated at between $35 and $40 million.

In an effort to provide flexibility, the ordinance does not include a specific spending plan, although the section on the JPA’s powers provides a range of possible uses. Administrative expenses are capped at 10 percent of revenues, and no JPA board member shall receive per diem or mileage payments for meeting attendance.

The functions of the JPA would include determining the appropriate use of the parcel tax for regional fire protection, providing regional fire protection primarily through aerial assets and the additional fire trucks, and enhancing the quality of regional emergency and communications equipment.

The JPA would also establish a technical advisory committee of firefighting professionals and would have the authority to contract with other jurisdictions (including the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the US Forest Service, and reservation and military fire departments).

The regional agency would receive half of the parcel tax while the local fire protection agencies would receive the other half. The formula for allocating the amount to the local agencies would be based on that agency’s payments of the parcel tax.

The local agencies would also be subject to a maintenance of effort requirement; the most recent three-year average of the percent of general taxes spent on fire protection and emergency medical services must be maintained and the parcel tax revenue would supplement rather than replace the existing expenditures. The maintenance of effort requirement is a percentage of revenues rather than a dollar amount.

While the JPA board could amend much of the ordinance, the voters would retain the authority to change the amount of the parcel tax, the method of application to parcels, the allocation of revenues between regional and local needs, the purposes for which the parcel tax may be used, and any increase in annual adjustments or the duration of the tax. The tax is proposed for a 30-year duration.

“I don’t like taxes. I don’t like parcel taxes,” said Supervisor Bill Horn. “At the same time, I don’t see any other way of solving the problem.”

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