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SB County may change how some residents pay for fire, paramedic services

A single fire protection district service zone would be more equitable and create more revenue, officials say.

San Bernardino County is looking to restructure the way some of its residents pay for fire protection and emergency medical services.

Under a proposal that the Board of Supervisors is scheduled to discuss Tuesday, one of the County Fire Protection District’s six service zones – Service Zone FP-5 – will be expanded to cover the entire county, Capt. Steve Tracy said.

All other service zones will be folded into FP-5, and all fees associated with them will be eliminated and replaced with FP-5 fees.

The Department has held a series of public meetings explaining the need for the changes, which it hopes can be made by the supervisors and not a public vote.

Chief Mark Hartwig is pushing hard for the change, having been quoted as saying the Fire Protection District has operated for too long with a budget shortfall and that it needs to operate independently.

Should the supervisors approve the change, all property owners in the expanded Service Zone FP-5 would pay a yearly parcel fee of $157.26. Any future increases would be limited to no more than percent and would require the approval of the Fire Protection District Board, Tracy said.

Cities that have their own fire departments will be exempt from the new system. Also exempt will be cities that contract with other fire departments and those that receive fire protection and emergency medical services through CalFire or special districts.

The San Bernardino County Fire Protection District – which is the official jurisdiction of the San Bernardino County Fire Department – covers more than 19,200 square miles and more than 60 communities and cities.

Currently, the District is operating at a budget shortfall of nearly $30 million. In order to maintain services during 2018-’19 fiscal year it had to request $17 million from the County’s general fund.

That request was granted, but taking from the general fund is not a long-term solution because it eliminates money for other vital services, particularly law enforcement.

“Drawing from the general fund would mean fewer sheriff’s deputies patrolling our streets, fewer deputy district attorneys prosecuting criminals, less frequent road maintenance, less health inspections, and cuts to just about every county government function,” stated, a website the department set up to explain the proposed District 5 expansion.

Service Zone FP-5, which was established 10 years ago, includes Needles, San Bernardino, Twentynine Palms, Upland, and the unincorporated communities of Helendale and San Antonio Heights. It was chosen for countywide expansion because county officials believe that move has the best chance of closing the budget shortfall, Tracy said.

Without the expansion of FP-5, the County Fire Protection District will be forced to close fire stations, will lose firefighters and paramedics and force people with emergencies to have to cope with longer response times.

At a time when the State is being ravaged annually by catastrophic wildfires, such reductions could not be more ill-timed, according to a video included on the website.

However, enlarging FP-5 would generate an estimated $27 million in parcel tax revenue, nearly enough to cover the current budget shortfall. It would also maintain fire protection and emergency medical services at their present rate “for the foreseeable future,” while preventing cuts to other government services, according the website.

Expanding FP-5 will also level the playing field because it is a more equitable way to pay for fire protection and emergency medical services.

“More densely populated communities are subsidizing less populated and more remote communities,” the website states. “This is because property tax revenues in many areas throughout the county, particularly in less populated areas, will never be high enough to cover the costs of providing many county government services, including fire and EMS, in those areas.”

The current system can’t be left as it is, said Tracey Martinez, Public Information Officer for the San Bernardino County Fire Department.

“As it’s set up now the system is not sustainable,” Martinez said. “A vast number of people who live in San Bernardino County are getting their fire and paramedic protection without paying for it, which isn’t right.”

The cost of public services should be shared equally among those who use them, which is why a one-size-fits all fire protection district makes fiscal sense, said Jay Prag, professor of economics at Claremont Graduate University’s Drucker School of Management.

In an opinion piece published by The Press-Enterprise in September, Prag wrote that the majority of San Bernardino County residents are subsidizing the minority because some residents don’t pay the parcel tax.

“I’ve gotten some blowback on that, but I stand by it,” Prag said. “Everyone who uses a public service should have to pay for it.”

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