Little of Tax Hike Goes to Fight Fires

Times Staff Writer

Ten years ago this week, firestorms tore through Altadena, Laguna Beach and Malibu, destroying 960 buildings -- and saving Proposition 172.

The measure, on the Nov. 2, 1993, ballot, had been lost in obscurity to most voters until fires erupted just a week before election day. Its backers quickly crafted a television advertisement with fresh footage of heroic firefighters to urge voters to approve Proposition 172, which dedicated a half-cent sales tax increase to city and county public safety programs.

Proposition 172 passed, most strongly in Southern California. But in the decade since, very little of the more than $18.5 billion it has generated has gone to firefighters.

In the Southern California counties scorched this week by what is likely to be the most expensive series of fires in state history, supervisors have directed nearly all of the Proposition 172 money to the sheriff's, district attorney's and probation departments.

Firefighters who have long been irritated by the issue say they are now angry enough to do something about it.

"In our view, it's just not right that a proposition that was passed on the basis of what it would do for police and fire, and was pushed over the 50% mark by the public's response to a major fire, has yielded so little for the fire service," said Carroll Wills, a spokesman for the California Professional Firefighters.

In Orange County, where none of $1.9 billion in Proposition 172 money has gone to the county fire authority, firefighters say they intend to ask supervisors for any money generated beyond a 2% annual growth in the sales tax revenue.

As it is, the sheriff's and district attorney's offices now divide all of Orange County's Proposition 172 money. "We are asking for such an infinitesimally small amount of money that it's almost pathetic," said Joe Kerr, leader of the Orange County Professional Firefighters.

If supervisors reject that request, he said, firefighters may launch a county initiative, asking voters to redirect 25% of the Proposition 172 money to the county fire agency.

"The reason we're getting more aggressive ... is there's smoke in the sky," Kerr said. "We're hoping to right the wrong."

Firefighters are bolstering their argument with an April opinion from the attorney general's office stating that county supervisors have the discretion each year to change how they distribute Proposition 172 money. That discretion includes giving money to public safety agencies that haven't gotten the money in the past.

Fire chiefs simply haven't been as politically savvy or aggressive in persuading supervisors to dedicate money to fire protection, Wills said.

"Local county sheriffs, because they're elected, were much more politically astute in the early stages following the passage of Prop. 172," he said.

Local government officials said they give the bulk of the Proposition 172 money to law enforcement because fire districts generally have a separate, more reliable source of revenue through property taxes.

The Orange County Fire Authority, for example, serves 22 cities. Fifteen of those cities earmark property tax revenue for fire protection. Another seven directly pay the authority for fire services.

In Los Angeles County, the Fire Department is supported through a special tax on property owners that was approved by voters.

"Traditionally, people will vote for fire; they will vote for parks," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke. "They won't vote for prisons and they definitely won't for the D.A."

Last month, Los Angeles County supervisors voted to reduce that tax by $3 a year to $49.93 per home. Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman endorsed the reduction, saying that higher-than-anticipated property tax revenue and a state payment of $18 million stemming from a lawsuit had put the department on sound financial footing.

That's not the case in Orange County, said union chief Kerr, who complained that the Orange County Fire Authority has 36 fire engines staffed with only three firefighters each, when new standards require four.

"The promise was that some of this money was going to go to firefighting protection," he said.

In San Bernardino County, where all the Proposition 172 money is split among the sheriff's, district attorney's and probation departments, Supervisor Fred Aguiar said the Fire Department gets adequate general fund money. But he said that he would like to see any growth in Proposition 172 revenues earmarked for fire protection.

Top fire officials have not sought the money, Aguiar said, but rank-and-file firefighters support the idea. "Once we get through this crisis ... that's probably one of the issues we're going to talk about," he said.

In Ventura County, administrators have battled over Proposition 172 dollars almost from the moment they became available.

After county supervisors in 1994 directed some of the money to the auditor-controller and medical examiner departments, the sheriff and district attorney struck back the following year with a successful ordinance barring the county board from dipping into the money for anything other than public safety.

Even though the county fire protection district was supposed to get a meaningful cut, however, it has received just $565,000 out of the $425.5 million in sales taxes collected since 1993.

About 75% of the Proposition 172 money has instead gone to the Sheriff's Department, with the rest split among the district attorney's, probation and public defender's offices.

Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper said the deal stripping the fire district from funding had been made before he took over the top post. But he agreed that it was time for a review. "I would not say it has necessarily hurt our ability to fight fires because we have a different source of revenue," Roper said.

"But when Proposition 172 was passed, a lot of people who voted for it assumed that some of the money would be going to the Fire Department and that hasn't happened."

Ten of the 28 counties that responded to informal surveys by the California State Assn. of Counties in 2001 and 2003 reported using Proposition 172 money for fire protection.

Most of those reported using just a small amount for fire, such as .8% in Placer County and 5.63% in Santa Cruz.

In the region hit hard by wildfires this week, none of the money from the 1993 measure goes to fire agencies in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Ventura or San Diego counties, according to the state association and officials in those counties. Riverside County uses slightly more than 5% of its money -- or $3.4 million a year -- for fire protection.

Some of the Proposition 172 money gets transferred from counties to cities, and cities may use the money for fire protection.

The city of Los Angeles, for example, will devote to its Fire Department about $6 million of the $31 million it expects to receive this year from the sales tax measure. The rest of the money will go to the Police Department.

Ten years ago, Southern Californi residents gave a boost to Proposition 172, which passed 58% to 42%.

The measure was defeated in 18 rural Northern California counties and Kern County, but passed by its widest margins in the counties ravaged then -- and again this week -- by wildfires. Its bipartisan group of backers included Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, legislative leaders, firefighter and police unions, fire and police chiefs and other local government officials.

The constitutional amendment made permanent a half-cent sales tax increase that had been imposed in 1991 by Wilson and the Legislature to help balance the budget.

In leaving the higher sales tax in place, Wilson and the Legislature hoped to help counties and cities recover at least half of the $2.6 billion they had lost in 1993, when Wilson shifted property tax money to help balance the state budget. Since 1993, according to the state association of counties, Proposition 172 has generated $1.5 billion to $2 billion a year, with an average of 95% of that money going to counties and the rest to cities.

Crime -- not fires -- was the focus of the Proposition 172 campaign until the last few days. Polls at the time showed crime to be the second-greatest concern of California residents, after the economic recession.

One of the Proposition 172 television ads featured Clint Eastwood's voice and an image of a woman walking alone through a dark parking lot. Ballot statements in support of Proposition 172 stated: "Carjackings, ATM holdups, shootings in our schools, violence, murder and mayhem dominate the evening news each and every night."

But less than a month before the election, polls showed that three of four registered voters did not know enough about Proposition 172 to take a position. When flames erupted in searing Santa Ana winds, campaign consultant Stu Mollrich moved quickly to compose new ads.

"It'll just be straightforward: Proposition 172 provides needed funding for fire services, and people ought to support it," Mollrich told The Times just days before the election. "We'll show footage of people fighting fires."

Mollrich, still a political consultant in Laguna Beach, recalled the election night victory celebration at the Biltmore Hotel. "The room was three-quarters empty because all of the firefighters and police officers in Los Angeles were so involved in controlling those fires," he said. "It was like the whole core of our campaign was off fighting fires."



How Prop. 172 Money Gets Spent

Ten years ago, voters statewide passed a half-cent sales tax increase to provide money for county and city public safety programs. Proponents credited the measure's success, in part, to wildfires that burned hundreds of homes in Southern California the week before election day. But since then, county supervisors have given fire departments very little of the $1.5 billion to $2 billion a year generated by the tax. Here is a breakdown:

Los Angeles County

Sheriff -- 85%

District attorney -- 15%

Fire protection -- 0%

Orange County

Sheriff -- 80%

District attorney -- 20%

Fire protection -- 0%

Riverside County

Sheriff/coroner -- 61.32%

District attorney -- 17.1%

Probation -- 16.51%

Fire protection -- 5.07%

San Bernardino County

Sheriff -- 70%

District attorney -- 17.5%

Probation -- 12.5%

Fire protection -- 0%

San Diego County

Sheriff -- 70%

District attorney -- 20%

Probation -- 10%

Fire protection -- 0%

Ventura County

Sheriff -- 75%

District attorney -- 10%

Probation -- 11%

Public defender -- 4%

Fire protection -- 0%

Source: County budget officials


Times staff writer Catherine Saillant contributed to this report.

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