Property owners cheered when property taxes dropped twice in recent years, but the decline in revenue for the Hesperia Fire District may mean big cuts in staffing.


Assistant City Manager Brian Johnson laid out the details of the proposed cut at Tuesday's budget workshop, held at Hesperia City Hall.


"Many of our homeowners are enjoying paying lower property taxes," he said, "but for us, it's a dangerous hit to our revenue."


About 57 percent of the fire district's revenue comes from property tax. The district's property tax revenue dropped from $4.3 million in the 2008-2009 fiscal year to $3.8 million in the 2010-2011 year. City staff are estimating next year's property tax revenue drops to $3.7 million.


Police and fire service are "what people pay taxes for," he said. "But right now, tax revenue is down."


In the proposed budget outlined Tuesday afternoon, the city would cut 21.6 full-time employees, which breaks down as 20 full-time positions and one part-time position being cut.


The 20 eliminations include cutting 11 currently vacant positions (including the city clerk job and five deputies) and nine firefighters. Those nine cuts will mean one less firefighter/paramedic on each truck per shift.


"We looked at all other options" for fire cuts, he said, "but all other options involved looking at [cutting] ambulances."


Seventy-five to 80 percent of fire calls in the city are medical calls of some sort, according to Johnson.


Fire staffing has been relatively stable since 2008, with 59 total employees. (The number includes part-time employees added together for accounting purposes.) That would drop to 48 total full-time employees next year, if the budget were approved.


"Last year, we adopted a fire district budget that was not structurally balanced, and we knew that this was the year to fix it," said Johnson.


The fire district's budget would be cut by 14 percent, from $9.6 million to $8.3 million.


The city's overall proposed is $118 million, including $18 million from reserves. The budget is 24 percent smaller than last year's.


Overall, full-time city staff would be reduced by 6.5 percent next year. In July 2010, staff took an 8 percent cut in salary and benefits and both were frozen at that level.


Unlike other local municipalities, which have been draining their reserves dry while hoping that the economy will dramatically recover in the near future, Hesperia has been taking a more conservative approach during the recession, and dipping only minimally into their reserves.


"Basically, we're not trying to use the model of the federal government or state of California, let's put it that way," said Johnson. "We've got to keep operating funds and operating expenditures in the same arena."


The largest crowd at a budget workshop in memory -- many of them San Bernardino County Firefighters -- turned out to voice their opposition to the proposed cuts.


"It's a dangerous, dangerous proposition," said Ken Lewis. "We have to maintain the minimum funding that we have now."


"In the end, your job as elected officials is to provide essential services and safety to our residents," said Jeremy Kern.


"We're going to endanger our citizens and fire crews" by cutting staff per shift, said Steve Sprague. "Let's go to the citizens and say 'hey, we need some revenue from you.'"


Maintaining fire district funding at its current level, without dipping into other city funds, would cost property owners about an additional $50 per parcel, according to City Manager Mike Podegracz.


"I don't know how many people would support an additional $50 or $100 on their property tax," said Mayor Mike Leonard, a retired firefighter with the defunct Hesperia Fire Department and the county fire department. "There's nobody on this council who wants to cut either fire or police."


"There are no good choices this year," said Councilman Paul Bosacki. "We're all in this together. Nobody takes any joy in cutting any of our safety services."


The city council will vote on the budget proposal at their June 21 meeting, and the budget will take effect at the beginning of the new fiscal year on July 1.


The next regular meeting of the Hesperia City Council will take place on June 21 at 6:30 p.m. at Hesperia City Hall, 9700 Seventh Avenue.


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