Balancing budgets for the sake of safety in Hesperia
We remember Fire Captain Superintendent Ted Hall of Oak Hills who lost his life in 2009 fighting the Station fire in the Angeles National Forest. That conflagration blackened thousands of acres making it the most destructive in Los Angeles County. Losing Ted and firefighter specialist Arnie Quinones reminds us of the dangers that can face those whose job it is to protect us.
Desert fire protection presents challenges. In my former community, it was rare for a structure to burn to the ground. Because of population density, fire stations were spaced within one mile of every residence. Firefighters there contended with seasonal Santa Ana wind storms but not the persistent strong desert winds that can drive a fast moving brush fueled wildfire into town when backfires can’t contain it.
A scandal was averted in 2006 when reports surfaced that funds proposed for a fire station on city property at Main and Escondido were being eyed by the 1st District Supervisor to furnish his office. Discussion of a station at Main Street ceased as Hesperia joined the County with construction of station No. 305 in 2008. This was the year the housing bubble burst and property values started tumbling. Prudent government planners would have reserved rainy-day funds in the heydays of increasing property tax revenue.
In 2011 the Hesperia City Council offered a special election — Measure F — to raise funds in lieu of cutting fire department costs. I would have voted for a tax to increase fire protection so, for me, it was a no-brainer to vote for a plan that threatened cuts in service if voters did not pass it; although that tactic seemed heavy-handed.
The tax did not pass and the city closed station No. 301 on 11th Avenue in January 2012. Fire staff was reduced by nine positions. Nine equates to three shifts of firefighters according to Kelly Malloy, city spokesperson. She explained that the ambulance was moved to station No. 305 to be manned by personnel there.
Readers may be interested to know that the Hesperia Fire Protection District moved from being a county subsidiary district to our city when Hesperia incorporated on July 1, 1988. Permission to have the City Council serve as Directors for the Fire District required an opinion from the Attorney General. That permission came from Dan Lungren in 1998.
When a community incorporates, the local agency formation commission (LAFCO) determines the amount of property tax revenue that the new city inherits from
special districts and the county government. According to the League of Women Voters, when a new city takes over few services leaving special districts in place to pay for fire protection, parks, water and sewers, it’s no surprise that the city receives only a small share of property tax revenues generated within its community.
According to the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for the year ended June 30, 2011 the property tax revenue rate for Hesperia is 1.6 percent for the city basic rate, 15.3 percent for the Hesperia Fire District and 1 percent for the Hesperia Water district. These rates have not changed. Hesperia tried for a bigger percentage. It sponsored legislation to force San Bernardino County to give it more property tax revenue but the Senate defeated AB 1057 (Olberg, 1999).
Fire District personnel were city employees until the council determined the county
could offer better service. Since June 1, 2005, the county provides fire protection, fire investigation, fire suppression, advanced life support services, ambulance transportation service, hazardous materials and rescue services. During the fiscal year ending June 30, 2011 the amount for these services was $9,474,569 and for the past two years Hesperia has had to move general budget funds to the Fire District to cover shortfalls.
Financial stresses on the city and taxpayers are real. But, public safety is as important a duty to a well-functioning local government as national defense is to our representatives in Washington, D.C. When a station is closed, resources have to be rerouted and response time is slower. Having less personnel at the scene could make a difference in caring for lives or property. The City Council needs to find ways to balance budgets while providing our fire fighters with the resources they need to protect us.