The 2018 Woolsey fire burned through a large swath of Los Angeles and Ventura counties, from the Santa Susana Mountains to Malibu, killing three people, requiring the evacuation of more than 3,000 others and pushing firefighters to their limits. The firefighters from other parts of the state who were supposed to be sent in to help under mutual aid agreements were simply unavailable because of the concurrent Camp fire in Northern California that destroyed the town of Paradise, and because of dangerous fire conditions across much of the rest of California.
We’re likely to see more fires on this scale as the climate changes and construction continues to move farther into wilderness areas.
Separately, demand has exploded for paramedic services, which usually are provided by fire departments. Improvements in emergency response equipment have made it possible to save more people — but only if the equipment is available.
The Los Angeles County Fire Department is asking for a new parcel tax to enable it to meet the growing demand for its services. Measure FD on the March 3 ballot would add a new parcel tax of 6 cents per square foot on residential and commercial buildings to allow the Los Angeles County Fire Department to hire more firefighters and paramedics, upgrade its equipment and better serve the public. The taxable area would be capped at 100,000 square feet.
The measure deserves support.
County funding can be convoluted, so there are several important things to keep in mind. Cities with their own fire departments — the city of Los Angeles, for example — are not covered. Residents there won’t be voting on this measure and won’t be paying the tax if it passes. The tax will be voted on and applied, if approved, only where the L.A. County Fire Department does its work — in unincorporated county areas and in the 58 cities that contract with the county for fire protection and emergency services.
The L.A. County Fire Department is in some sense separate from the rest of county government. It gets a dedicated chunk of property taxes but nothing from the county’s general fund. To keep up with rising costs, it had to go to voters in 1997 for a parcel tax. Measure FD would supplement that.
Voting “yes” is the right move, but the measure would be even easier to support if the rest of county government had its act together a bit better. The county auditor-controller is late on a report on Fire Department overtime, and it would be useful to know, before voting, whether any management efficiencies could address some of the funding issues.
In addition, the county registrar-recorder goofed. The office sent vote-by-mail ballots that failed to include Measure FD to two cities (Pomona and Hawthorne) that are served by the L.A. County Fire Department and would be covered by the tax. Voters there will now get a supplemental ballot and will have to remember to send it in along with the regular ballot.
That mistake could seriously undermine the chance of passing the measure, which requires a two-thirds vote.
Voters are properly wary of requests for new taxes. And there are cases in which they should say no, not because the services to be funded are unworthy but because the county has done too little to justify or explain the funding requests. Voters did that in 2014 when they rejected a poorly structured parcel tax for parks, leading the county to go back to the drawing board, seeking greater input and following up with better public outreach. A more carefully crafted measure won passage in 2016.
L.A. County voters have already opened their wallets multiple times in recent years, funding measures for storm water runoff, homeless services and mass transit projects in addition to the aforementioned parks tax. But Measure FD is well thought out, and there is no reason to send it back for a do-over. It reasonably would tax residents and businesses who need and deserve protection by a properly staffed and equipped Fire Department. Failing to approve the measure will leave those people jeopardized by increasing fire danger and a growing gap between their needs and what the department is able to provide. Voters in the cities and unincorporated county areas who are eligible to vote on the tax and would be benefit from it should say yes.