Fire District Seeks Voter OK to Exceed Budget Cap

Times Staff Writer

The Ventura County Fire Protection District will ask voters Nov. 8 to exceed a state-mandated budget ceiling that would prevent it from spending as much as $22 million in property taxes that it expects to collect over the next four years.

If Measure A fails, the district will close about four of its 30 stations, said Fire Chief Rand Scott-Coggan. Each closure could save about $550,000, but would also slow the agency's response time in emergencies, he said. Last year, the department, which serves 373,000 county residents in an area spanning 865 square miles, responded to more than 16,000 emergencies.

Only district residents can vote on the measure, which requires a simple majority to pass.

Selling the initiative as a necessity to maintain its present level of service, the district has garnered endorsements from virtually all of the county's local, state and national representatives, as well as that of the Ventura County Taxpayers Assn.

Property Taxes

Coggan said the spending limit, put in place by the 1979 Gann Initiative, has hit fire districts particularly hard because they must rely more on property taxes than other special agencies, such as water districts, which receive a greater percentage of their funding from user fees.

But the plan in general drew a strongly negative reaction from Paul Gann, who also co-authored Proposition 13, the property tax-cutting measure that preceded the spending limitations.

"I hate to see these continuous tax increases because local governments are hitting the taxpayers everywhere," Gann said from the Sacramento offices of his People's Advocate organization. "The bureaucrats create the obligation and the taxpayer has to pay. . . . I would like to see the people of California vote these things down."

Gann aide Ted Costas said People's Advocate supported the process through which voters will decide, but he criticized the need to raise the limit.

However, Coggan said the reasons for Measure A lie in problems with the Gann Initiative itself and a 1987 interpretation of it by the state Court of Appeal.

"The Gann limit does not take into consideration local, real economic growth," he said. "The same things that cause us to collect more money than we can spend are also the things that cause us to need more money."

The Gann limit, included in the state Constitution as Article VIII-B, uses national population growth rates combined with inflation growth to determine how much more money an agency can spend in the next year.

For the fire district, this increase is predicted to remain stable at about 6% each year for the next several years, Coggan said.

However, the inflation rate used is the cost-of-living increase estimated by the Consumer Price Index for the United States rather than for California. And while the Gann limit protects Californians from paying for programs whose costs grow faster than the local inflation rate, it does not protect the programs from growing too slowly to do their jobs.

That is exactly what has happened to the fire district, Coggan said.

Annual Growth

He said the district must grow by 10% annually to keep up with local demands. Just to stay even, it would have to spend $600,000 more than the Gann limit allows this fiscal year, Coggan said.

"We're just saying let us spend what we're collecting," he said.

Adding to the fire district's financial difficulties is an appellate court decision that effectively decreases the operating budgets of local governments. The decision, handed down in 1987, forced Santa Barbara County to include its payments to employee pension funds in the formula that set its spending limit.

Santa Barbara--and, it turns out, Ventura County--had excluded these payments from the calculations.

The Ventura County fire district, with personnel costs making up 82% of its budget, was hit hard. Another $2.3 million in tax revenues had to be trimmed from its $35.5-million budget to keep it within the law.

Unused Funds

If the measure fails, any unused tax money would not be returned to residents, as the original Gann Initiative ordered. Instead, the money could be channeled to another district by the Board of Supervisors.

This alternative was created by lawmakers to ease the sting of the spending limits and Proposition 13 on special districts. In Ventura, the county doles out this money to about 90 such districts.

Even so, other local districts are not rooting for the demise of Measure A.

"It seems to me that the Fire Department is facing an issue that the other special districts may be facing at a future time," said Dixie Adeniran, director of the Ventura County Library Services Agency.

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