By Joe Naiman
On Tuesday, Aug. 5, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors will hold a hearing to determine whether voters should decide in November on the creation of a regional fire protection agency and a parcel tax to support it.
The tax, if approved could generate up to $50 million to pay for fire protection equipment and staffing throughout the region.
What will be debated: the structure of the proposed regional agency, whether the parcel tax will include an annual percentage increase, and whether the proposal will indeed be placed on the November 2008 ballot or deferred to a later election.
"This measure would provide local fire departments with new revenue," said San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, the co-chair of the Regional Fire Protection Committee. "More fires will burn in this region, and this measure will help us be ready when they do."
Supervisor Diane Jacob, who has played a significant role in focusing attention on regional fire safety, said, "We want to do something, but I think it is important to do it right."
The tax is proposed to last for 30 years. The measure must receive two-thirds voter approval to pass.
Because the revenue would be collected with property tax payments, the first revenue would be received in December 2009.
"We have a minimum of two more fire seasons to get through," said Supervisor Ron Roberts, who co-chaired the Regional Fire Protection Committee with Sanders. "It's going to take a while before the money flows."
On July 18, supervisors voted unanimously to accept the final report from the Regional Fire Protection Committee. They directed the county counsel's office to come back Aug. 5 with the documents needed to place the measure on the November ballot, and set the Aug. 5 public hearing.
In addition, they asked that two different ordinances be prepared. Supervisors are legally able to create a hybrid ordinance from the two alternatives, and if needed they could work on an alternative on Aug. 6 so they can meet the Aug. 8 deadline for placing a measure on the November ballot.
"I'd like to try to see if we can put something together," Jacob said.
In January, the supervisors voted to establish the Regional Fire Protection Committee, with nine members - two supervisors, four mayors, and three fire chiefs. The group is charged with assessing and recommending regional fire protection equipment and staffing needs and potential funding sources. The panel is also responsible for considering short-term and long-term options related to a regional fire authority.
In July, the committee came up with a plan for a joint powers agency (JPA) with 21 board members, consisting of one member from each incorporated city, one member of the Board of Supervisors, and two members representing fire protection districts.
The committee also recommended a parcel tax, which would become effective on July 1, 2009, and would be added to property tax bills. It would apply to parcels in both incorporated cities and the unincorporated areas and is estimated to generate $50 million in the first year, with the regional agency receiving half of the funds while the local fire protection agencies getting the other half.
Parcels not exceeding 50 acres or 10,000 square feet of improvements would be assessed $52 per year with a two percent annual escalation. 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 two percent annual increase. The parcel tax would generate an estimated $50,000,000 in the first year.
As proposed, the joint powers board could amend much of the ordinance, but 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 proposed governance structure came under fire from the other four supervisors. "This structure looks amazingly like SANDAG II or the Son of SANDAG," said Supervisor Pam Slater-Price. "I don't really think we need another SANDAG in this area. I think one is quite enough."
The San Diego Association of Governments board consists of 21 voting members: two from the San Diego City Council, two from the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, and one apiece from each of the county's other 17 incorporated cities. "I'm just totally befuddled as to why on earth we'd need 21 people," Slater-Price said.
The motion approved July 22 calls for an 11-member board consisting of two county supervisors, one city of San Diego representative,four other city council members (one apiece from South Bay, East County, North County Coastal, and North County Inland selected by each sub-regional group) and four fire agency representatives selected by the fire agencies.
The San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association supports the regional agency and parcel tax with conditions. The conditions include an appropriate level of fire protection district representation on the JPA board and inclusion of the county's current Fire Enhancement Program in the maintenance of effort and in the coordination with the regional authority.
"Though it will not achieve our final goal, it is another step in the right direction," said Lakeside Fire Protection District fire chief Mark Baker, who is the current president of the San Diego County Fire Districts Association.
"The majority of major wildland fires occur in our jurisdictions," he said. "The majority of fire resources are deployed in our jurisdictions. All we request is that fire districts are fairly and equitably represented in the governance."