Plan Urges $115 Fire Service Tax on Homeowners

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County homeowners could be charged $115 annually for fire services under a plan reviewed Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors.

According to the plan, prepared by a county-hired consultant, the county Fire Department must recoup nearly $20 million next year--nearly half its budget--in the wake of state budget cuts.

If the county fails to implement the special assessment tax, fire officials estimate that they could be forced to lay off about 200 of their 463 workers and close up to 15 fire stations.

"Without a benefit assessment, we are in big trouble," said Ken Maffei, president of the Ventura County Firefighters Assn. "One-hundred and fifteen dollars is not going to fund us fully to what we were last year. . . . It will just keep us going."

Although several supervisors expressed concern that $115 would be too much for some homeowners to pay, county officials said they may not have a choice.

The supervisors are expected to discuss the matter again April 27, after BSI Consultants Inc. completes its report. The public will be given an opportunity to address the issue at a hearing scheduled for June 29, before the supervisors make a final decision on the tax, officials said.

On Tuesday, the board agreed to pay the firm $48,500 to finish the second and final phase of its study, which will detail how the tax would be implemented. The county paid the firm $24,000 two months ago to determine how much property owners should be assessed.

"The board members are just shaking their heads in frustration," Supervisor Maria E. VanderKolk said. "We have the onerous responsibility of maintaining public health and safety, and there are not many services as important as fire protection."

Supervisor Maggie Kildee added: "I'm really wrestling with this one. We still have to get the job done. I don't think anyone wants to see a reduction in fire service. But, I've already had calls from elderly folks who are on fixed incomes."

According to the report, only properties that receive county fire service would be taxed. There are an estimated 133,800 parcels in the service area, the report said.

While homeowners would be taxed $115, condominium owners would be assessed $92 annually over 10 years. Commercial or industrial property owners with holdings under five acres would be taxed $345 and mobile home owners would pay $58.

If the supervisors agree to adopt the tax, property owners will be allowed to protest the matter. If 5% of the property owners petition against the assessment, the county must hold a special election on the issue, county officials said.

"I know that there is going to be a huge protest, and I do anticipate this will go to a ballot measure," VanderKolk said. "Everyone is in bad shape (financially), but at the same time people want to know that their families are safe. It's a very frightening time."

H. Jere Robings, president of the Ventura County Alliance of Taxpayers, has criticized the county for proposing the tax, saying it "circumvents the intent of Proposition 13."

"It's going to prove to be a financial hardship for people," Robings said. "If it's $115 this year, what is it going to be next year and the year after that. . . . Where does it end? I think it's a crime."

The consultants recommended that the supervisors could increase the assessment by slightly less than 5% each year.

Although most of the board members expressed concerns Tuesday on the amount of the assessment, Supervisor John K. Flynn was the only board member to say that he will refuse to support a $115 tax.

"It's just way too high," he said. "I really have to see some streamlining of the organization."

But Kildee said, "I don't think we have a choice but to support it."

The county's General Fund stands to lose $36 million in state money. State funding to the county's library and fire services could be slashed by up to $27 million, decimating both departments.

NEXT STEP

On April 27, Ventura County supervisors are scheduled to discuss a recommendation to tax county homeowners $115 annually for fire services. If the board agrees to move ahead with the assessment, the public will have an opportunity to address the supervisors at a June 29 hearing.

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