The pie is cut into 15 unequal pieces when Hesperians pay their property taxes.

Half of the pie goes immediately to the Hesperia Unified School District and to a state education fund. Another quarter is divided up between the Hesperia Fire Protection District and the county of San Bernardino.

Then, taking much smaller slices, less than half the size of the county's piece of the pie, come Victor Valley College and the Hesperia Recreation and Park District.

And about half as small again are slices for flood control and then the City of Hesperia, followed by the San Bernardino County Library and Hesperia Water District.

And then come the smallest pieces of the pie, less than one percent of the total package: The Apple Valley Airport, the county superintendent of schools, the Mojave Water Agency and more money for flood control.

And, finally, the tinist piece of them all, a fifth of one percent of the whole, a tiny piece for the Mojave Desert Resource Conservation District.

Making do with a little

After so many agencies have taken their pieces of the pie, most are left with relatively small amounts of cash to work with.

Only about 10 percent of the park district's $15 million annual operating budget comes from property taxes, according to Cal Camara, the general manager of the Hesperia Parks and Recreation District.

"The rest of our money comes from program fees, grants, assessment zones, rentals, commercial ventures," Camara said Thursday. "We raise a lot of money specifically through the programs they serve," such as usage fees for various park facilities. "We try to provide a benefit for who pays, so we're not a typical government that funds everything out of taxes."

That method insulates the park district from economic downturns in that the lights will still stay on in existing facilities, but since the district uses development impact fees -- which are paid by developers beginning new projects -- to build new projects, no new construction means new projects.

"We live within our budget," Camara said.

Pieces of a shrinking pie

It's a bit more complicated for the city of Hesperia. Although the city only gets 1.59 percent of residents' property taxes for their general fund -- that is, the money they're free to do whatever they wish with -- they also get 15.3 percent of property tax revenue for the Hesperia Fire Protection District and 1.03 percent for the Hesperia Water District.

The big problem for the city is that the pie as a whole has been steadily shrinking, as property values have gone down with the bursting of the housing market bubble.

"People like me who have a house in Hesperia ... I had a 17.4 percent reduction in what I actually pay. This year, I'm getting an 11.1 percent reduction," Assistant City Manager Brian Johnson said Thursday. "The amount of money that was collected two years ago is basically almost 30 percent [more than this year]."

San Bernardino County Dennis Draeger reduced property taxes by 17.4 percent in Aug. 2009, and the again by 11.1 in the 2010-2011 fiscal year.

"We don't think it's over yet," said Johnson. "If I had to pull my crystal ball out right now, I'd say we're looking at a further 6 percent reduction next year."

Which is great news for residents, but not so great for agencies that are trying to maintain the same level of service on shrinking budgets.

"That money is great for me, but the reality is that the fire district ... isn't getting that money," said Johnson. "For us, for the fire district that's a big amount of money. That's where it's making it very difficult for us to keep the big level of service."

Property tax revenue has dropped even faster for redevelopment agency funds. RDA funds, which Johnson calls "the single biggest source of money for capital improvements in the city," are based on property tax valuation above what they were in 1998 -- everything above that point goes to the RDA, and then those funds are passed back out to other agencies, in a complex transaction. The bottom line: Two years ago, Hesperia's RDA, which pays for road paving and other services, received $34.9 million in property taxes. This coming year, it'll be closer to $17.9 million.

The small slice of the pie the city receives directly makes property tax value less of an issue for general services: The city gets only 1.59 percent of property taxes. That's approximately $440,000 of the city's $19.3 million general fund. Sales tax and vehicle license fees are much more important to the city's bottom line.

Allocated based on long-ago need

Not every incorporated town and city gets such a small slice of the pie, however.

Victorville gets 4.72 percent of residents' property tax revenues, with 6 percent going to the fire district and 5 percent going to the park district.

Apple Valley gets 9.4 percent of residents' property taxes and another 9.2 percent for the town's fire district.

Barstow gets 9.65 percent of property tax revenue, along with an additional 28.67 for its fire protection district, 4.37 percent for its park and recreation district and .6 percent for its cemetery district.

In Adelanto, the city gets 1.75 percent of residents' property tax, which works out to about $150,000 annually.

"The residents sits down with their tax bill ... they think that all goes to the city," said Adelanto City Manager Jim Hart. "And so then they start looking around Adelanto saying, 'Well, you've got all this property tax money, why aren't you providing a better level of police, or why aren't the parks in shape?'"

Adelanto pays approximately $5 million for police service annually and $3 million for fire protection service.

"How do you pay $8 million on just police and fire on a $150,000 property tax budget?" said Hart.

How much each incorporated city and town gets from residents' property tax is based on a formula set out in state law, in California Government Code 56810.

"It talks about the cost of service" for city services such as law enforcement, land use regulation, code enforcement and so on, said Kathleen Rollings-McDonald, the executive officer of the Local Agency Formation Commission, the body that regulates the formation of cities and special districts in San Bernardino County. "The county has to determine what the cost of that is, what the funding for the area is [from] property tax."

And once the cost for the new city or town providing what used to be county services is determined, it's essentially locked in for good.

"It pretty much boils down to law enforcement, and the year that the evaluation was done, Hesperia's cost of law enforcement was very, very low. And the year after that, it tripled," Rollings-McDonald said. "It's a snapshot, it's a picture."

Now, if a city in San Bernardino County annexes new territory -- such as Oak Hills residents often worry about Hesperia doing -- it will get a higher rate of the property taxes: 7 percent.

But other than that, Hesperia's 1.59 percent rate is almost certainly here to stay.

"There is a process in the revenue and taxation code that would allow for a recalculation," said Rollings-McDonald. "But the county would have to have agree to give up [the revenue]."

And no one is in a hurry to do that, she said, especially in this economy.

Staff writers Brooke Edwards, Karen Jonas, Natasha Lindstrom and Beatriz Valenzuela contributed to this report.

Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 760-956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com. Follow us on Facebook at Facebook.com/Hesperia.Star.


How Hesperians' property tax dollars are divided up:

Hesperia Unified School District - 29.50%
Education Revenue Augmentation Fund - 21.50%
Hesperia Fire Protection District - 15.30%
County of San Bernardino - 14.23%
Victor Valley Community College - 6.40%
Hesperia Recreation and Park District - 4.30%
Flood Control Zone 4 - 2.20%
City of Hesperia - 1.59%
County Free Library - 1.38%
Hesperia Water District - 1.03%
CSA 60 Victorville - 0.99%
County Superintendent of Schools - 0.97%
Mojave Water Agency - 0.50%
Flood Control Administration 3 6 - 09%
Mojave Desert Resource Conservation District - 0.02%