Despite budget cuts that threaten to close one-third of Los Angeles County's fire stations, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday rejected a proposal to spare the stations by requiring property owners to foot more of the bill for services.
The proposal by Chief Michael Freeman could have increased the amount that more than 650,000 homeowners pay each year from about $36 to roughly $197 per household. Money raised by the higher fees would have replaced $121.8 million in property tax revenue, earmarked for the County Fire Department, that state lawmakers are threatening to take to help balance the budget.
If that revenue is not replaced, Freeman said, his department may be forced to close one-third of its 127 fire stations and lay off as many as 700 firefighters serving 48 cities and unincorporated areas of the county.
But supervisors facing similar cuts in virtually every other county department complained that such an increase would be too high for overburdened homeowners. They urged state legislators to take responsibility for the budget crisis instead of forcing local governments to gut essential services.
By rejecting the proposed increases, the board essentially placed the Fire Department at the mercy of legislators, who will decide later this summer how much in property tax revenues will be diverted from the county.
"Now it's a case of playing chicken with the state," an agitated Freeman said, adding later that he was "concerned and very unnerved by the fact that our fire protection level is going to be a function of what the state Legislature does."
Supervisors, however, said they rejected the plan in part to show officials in Sacramento that local governments cannot keep shifting more and more of their revenue sources to the state without reducing vital functions such as fire and police protection.
"Somewhere or other you just have to draw the line," Supervisor Deane Dana said. "The state has no business taking away all that property tax with no replacement money."
Supervisor Gloria Molina agreed, saying she was not "willing to save the governor on the back of the taxpayers."
The proposal would not have increased fees immediately but would have allowed the Fire Department to begin the lengthy public review process necessary for changes in the levies. Tuesday, the day after fire season was officially declared, was the last day the county could act to meet procedural deadlines.
"It's a precautionary measure," said Supervisor Ed Edelman, the only supporter of the proposal. His motion to approve Freeman's plan failed without a vote after no other supervisor seconded it.
Frustrated by the board's apparent lack of will to approve an unpopular increase, Edelman said the plan was "a chance to raise money at the local level, and we backed away from it."
Every year, as the county prepares its budgets, many department heads project their worst-case scenarios for the year ahead. Last month, for instance, the board ordered county officials to find money to keep open three jails that Sheriff Sherman Block said would be closed because of funding cuts.
But the Fire Department is different from most county agencies because nearly all its operating budget comes from property taxes. It does not receive money from the county's general fund, so the Legislature's plan to shift property tax funds would have a severe effect.
"A one-third reduction, frankly, I cannot fully picture it," Freeman said. "Nor can I envision the potential impact."