Reaction to Proposition 13 Brings Cutbacks, Fees for Some Services
—City of Inglewood photo.
When California voters in June passed the famous—or infamous— Proposition 13 limiting property taxes to 1 percent of market value, there were forecasts of large layoffs of public employees and major cut backs of services. Most of these forecasts for this year were inaccurate, but what about the future?
In the 1978-79 fiscal year, fire and police agencies were recipients of state “surplus” bail-out funds with the legislature mandating that these public safety agencies should receive priority attention. To receive the state “bailout” funds, departments were not allowed to give employees salary increases, even if negotiated. In several cities, legal action is pending to determine the legality of the failure to give previously negotiated increases.
Thus, it appears that most jurisdictions have not been required to make major reductions in service for the current year. But what about 1979-80?
The majority of municipal fire agencies foresee no major cutbacks, but do believe that capital construction and acquisition of apparatus will be severely curtailed. On the other hand, the many fire districts in the state are uncertain about the next year. The state has an unusual number of fire protection districts because of the suburban growth in the past quarter century.
For example, following World War II, Los Angeles County had more than 30 individual fire districts, most of which were combined into a Consolidated Fire Protection District with efficiencies of administration, purchasings and operations. The L. A. County Fire Department actually is three departments— the fire districts, the forester and fire warden which protects watershed and rural areas, and the forestry department. The latter two are funded by general county and state funds.
The districts pay their own way with a special fire tax, but with Proposition 13, this income—the basic source of funds—is severely limited. Other California counties including Kern, Ventura and Santa Barbara face similar problems. In numerous other counties, the California Department of Forestry traditionally provided rural and watershed fire protection. As these areas developed county fire agencies were formed which now operate jointly with CDF.
Efforts are underway in the California Legislature to provide funds for the fire districts, perhaps with the state taking over basic funding. In the interim, several cities have taken the initiative in developing new sources of income related to fire prevention and rescue/ emergency medical services.
Inglewood, headed by Chief Dale Hill and located in the southwest Los Angeles area just east of the Los Angeles International Airport, has enacted a “per gallon” fire-flow charge. Hill told Fire Engineering that his city operates on team management planning and initially the planning was developed as if Proposition 13 would not pass.
“When it appeared that the initiative would be successful and we were anticipating massive service cuts, we looked at other ways to raise funds directly related to the protection provided,” Hill explained.
Fire-flow fee plan established
Inglewood wrote to Tacoma, Wash., where a fire-flow fee plan has been prepared.
“We used many of the elements of the Tacoma plan. All properties in the city were surveyed using ISO standards and the city council passed an ordinance calling for a fire-flow formula of 52 cents per gallon per minute.
“A basic service level of 1000 gpm was established which exempted most of the residential property from the new fees.”
The department is sending out its own bills and anticipates revenues of $1.7 million which will allow the department to maintain services at present levels. Opposition? The chief reports that many business and industrial firms understood the need for the fee to maintain current fire service, but the apartment house groups were opposed.
Nearby Culver City has adopted a similar ordinance and the City of Commerce in East Los Angeles—served under contract by the Los Angeles County Fire Department—has reportedly enacted a similar ordinance based on fire flows plus demand factors. It has not been placed into operation.
A cross section of a dozen other departments checked showed no plans for imposition of the water-flow fee plan
Many departments have increased fees for inspecting plans and at least one, San Clemente, would like to establish a multiple fee schedule including one for services.
The Rialto Fire Department has offered citizens the opportunity to voluntarily subscribe for free emergency medical services for $15 a year. More than 1100 of the San Bernardino County’s city’s residents have already signed up for the service which allows them to receive the services for free, rather than the approximately $60 others are charged.
Rialto, incidentally, has initiated legal action against the state because that city did not receive $250,000 in “bail-out” funds because salaries were raised by 5 percent.
Santa Barbara County Fire Chief William J. Patterson reports that his department would be forced to reduce personnel of up to 50 percent if required to operate on local tax funds now available.
“We are in the process of developing a fee schedule for fire service related permits and services and also hope to develop some type of protection fee schedule to insure continuing service.”
The Sacramento Fire Department cut its budget approximately 1.7 percent mostly for services and supplies. Forecasts are for a 10-15 percent cut in 1979-80 which, Chief William R. Powell notes, can only be accomplished by personnel cuts. A series of fees for various services has also been adopted in Sacramento.
Chief Allan R. Stone, Glendale, reports his budget was initially affected by a $120,000 cut in overtime which affected the constant manning program. He hopes that fong-range programs will enable the city to obtain sufficient funds to avoid a budget cut in the next fiscal year.
The West’s largest fire department, the Class 1 Los Angeles Fire Department, was required to cut its budget by 10 percent, according to Chief John Gerard. The chief, in an interview with Fire Engineering, expressed his disappointment with the requirement since the department had been keeping its costs down and efficiency high in past budget years.
“We cut our on-duty shift personnel from 915 to 807 and this means that single triples (combination pumpers) now will operate with four instead of five men. Most task force stations will be reduced to 10 men to operate an aerial and two triples.”
The chief notes that he has been advised that another 10 percent cut may be required for the 1979-80 budget. If that reduction is ordered, the only acceptable action will be to close as many as 25 of the city’s fire stations.
“We have already cut back construction not already started on a number of facilities authorized under a tax override several years ago,” he says.
In fact, Station 70 in the West San Fernando Valley may not be able to open on schedule until another station is consolidated, freeing men for the station. He noted that the department had activated three squad companies as of July 1.
“These units, a captain and four firemen, are deployed in downtown (Station 4), Hollywood (Station 27) and the Central San Fernando Valley (Station 39) and are available to furnish manpower in these regions.”
The chief said the squads were staffed by closing four heavy-duty task forces, that is, eliminating the third triple at Stations 3,11, 27 and 61.
“This change had nothing to do with Proposition 13,” he adds, “it came from suggestions from men in the field as a means to quickly get additional manpower at major fires.”
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In the center of the state’s fertile San Joaquin Valley, Fresno Chief Leland L. Hill reports that Proposition 13 had the net effect of eliminating all capital improvements, purchase of new equipment, purchase of replacement equipment, repair and maintenance projects of equipment and stations. The chief expects to be able to continue the current level of service in the 1979-80 fiscal year because of funds available.
“However, if we are not able to fund capital improvements, purchase new equipment, repair and maintenance of equipment and stations, then it will only be a matter of time before our level of service will be affected. Additional sources of revenues will have to be found to carry out these programs.”
In San Francisco, a 1 percent reduction was reported by Chief Ray A. Landi, bureau of administration.
“Our plans for the 1978-79 budgets are to prepare a budget that will reflect the same level of service as provided in the current years,” adding that there are no immediate plans to follow the user fee approach.
In Kern County, Chief Carl W. Williams reports curtailment of all capital major maintenance, and fire equipment purchases and severely limited travel for educational or business purposes.
“At present, we do not plan a user fee for fire protection. As a last resort this might take place. However, I would only support this concept as a means of survival. I feel that the fire service must establish its rightful place as the number one priority in using existing property taxes. I feel property taxes should be used first for property-related services, and 1 feel there is nothing more closely related to these taxes than the fire protection given by this department.”
— L.A. City F.D. photo.
In Ventura County, Chief Colleen Kenyon reported that services will be approximately the same this year because of state aid, but that no new construction or replacement of equipment will be possible. In a fast-growing county such as Ventura, this translates into less than adequate fire protection.
The final Ventura County budget was for $11,849,100, and included $4,502,876 in state funding designated to provide the same level of fire service as offered in the previous year. An additional $446,931 is anticipated from the state to balance the budget.
Hydrant rental eliminated
Funds for fire hydrant rental, $350,000 in the prior year, were elimminated. The Ventura County Fire Department took the position that no more rental payments would be made to water suppliers. They must pass along the loss of revenue to their customers in the form of higher water payments.
A tax override of $.10 was authorized for five years beginning in November 1975 to finance purchase and replacement of equipment, to construct and rehabilitate fire stations, and increase the number of on-duty fire fighters on engine companies. This was to be the third year of the program at a cost of $1,584,300 with plans for 39 new fire fighter positions, purchase of three engines, a water tower, a new station and reconstruction of a station in Camarillo. The department was informed that Proposition 13 did not allow the override and the expansion plans were dropped.
The Orange County Fire Department, operating with the California Division of Forestry unit, reports that all plans for the current fiscal year will be met, including capital projects, rolling stock.
“We foresee no decrease whatsoever in our abilities to provide our past levels of protection to the public we serve,” Deputy Chief Barritt Neal reports, but he says that projections for 1979-80 are hardly as bright.
Current budget is $18.6 million and the only funds that the department can count on for the next fiscal year are some $5 million in property taxes (its share of the 1 percent limitation) and some $3 million from city contracts.
“This totals approximately $8 million, thus leaving us a $10 million shortfall if we are to provide a level of service equivalent to this fiscal year,” Neal says, noting that the department is exploring fees and other methods of financing.
The future for fire services—as well as all other public safety (and non-safety) agencies in California is bleak because of Proposition 13. However, there is reasonable hope that the legislature will provide either funds or special fee/taxing legislation to keep both municipal departments and fire districts from severe service cuts and the resulting danger to life and property.