Despite budget cuts that threaten to close every third Los Angeles County fire station, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday rejected a proposal to spare those services by asking property owners to foot more of the bill.
The proposal by Fire Chief Michael Freeman could have hiked the amount that more than 650,000 homeowners pay each year for fire protection from about $36 to about $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 lawmakers in Sacramento are threatening to take to balance the state budget.
If those revenues are 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 Freeman's increase would have been 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 fee hikes, the board essentially placed the Fire Department at the mercy of state legislators, who will not decide until later this summer how much in property tax revenues they will divert from the county.
"Now it's a case of playing chicken with the state Legislature," 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 their rejection was 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."
Tuesday's action was especially important to outlying areas such as the Antelope, Santa Clarita and Las Virgenes valleys, all of which rely on the county Fire Department for fire protection and paramedic service.
"I think it's tragic," Calabasas Mayor Marvin Lopata said of the board's action. "I think we're in for some serious problems. If we don't need these fire stations, maybe we should not have built them in the first place."
Lancaster Mayor Arnie Rodio echoed Lopata's sentiments, saying, "When you start saying you're going to cut fire personnel, the public health and safety is not being protected. And the first job of elected officials is to protect the public health and safety."
An approval of the plan would not have increased fees immediately, but allowed the Fire Department to begin the lengthy public review process necessary for any changes in the way the fees are levied. Tuesday, the day after fire season was officially declared, was the final day that the county could act to meet procedural deadlines. If state budget projections would have improved, the board then could have reduced the fees before they went into effect.
"It's a precautionary measure," said Supervisor Ed Edelman, the lone supporter of the proposal. His motion to approve Freeman's proposal failed without a vote after no other supervisor seconded it.
Edelman, frustrated by the apparent lack of will on the board to approve a potentially unpopular fee hike, said Freeman's proposal 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, 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 other county agencies because nearly all of its operating budget comes directly from property taxes. It does not receive money from the county's general fund, so the Legislature's plan to shift property tax money would hit the Fire Department especially hard.
"A one-third reduction, frankly, I cannot fully picture it," Freeman said. "Nor can I envision the potential impact."