County officials are getting angry responses to a letter sent in late June to 604,000 property owners in 44 cities, telling them they may have to pay a special tax for the next decade to prevent cuts in county fire services in their communities.
County Supervisor Pete Schabarum said his office has received more than 200 "mostly angry" phone calls about the proposal by the county forester and fire warden, which will be the subject of a public hearing July 23 before the Board of Supervisors.
The tax would amount to $15.73 the first year for a single-family home, with a maximum charge of $31.46 per year for one home. A sunset provision would end the tax after 10 years.
Supervisors Michael D. Antonovich and Deane Dana said they had also received scores of calls from worried homeowners.
In the South Bay, the tax would be assessed in Carson, Lawndale, Lomita, Rancho Palos Verdes, Rolling Hills, Rolling Hills Estates and unincorporated areas. In Carson, the city administration has recommended that the council oppose the special assessment.
Limited to Fire Services
Fire Chief John Englund told the board Tuesday that a special hot line set up to explain the proposed tax had received about 2,300 phone calls, and fire personnel were conducting a poll to determine how callers felt about the tax.
Englund said that although many callers were initially confused or angry, the majority of them said they favored the tax after being told the yearly cost and assured that the money would be used only for fire services in their communities.
Of the 2,300 calls received as of Tuesday, 1,778 people favored the tax, 159 were against it and 368 were undecided, Englund said.
"When we explain that it goes solely to fire protection and will help us keep our response times up, then they do calm down," Englund said. "Everybody wants a good, fast fire service."
Fire officials say that if the special tax is not approved, seven fire engine companies will be shut down, eliminating 75 firefighters. In addition, Mike Gilberg, a spokesman for the county Fire Department, said expansion of fire services in quickly growing outlying areas of the county would be delayed to save money.
Delays in Responding
Englund said such cuts would create delays in emergency response times and could increase the loss of life and damage to property. He said it would also hurt his department's ability to respond to major emergencies such as apartment house fires or brush fires that sweep through whole neighborhoods.
But Schabarum said Englund's claim that people widely support the new tax was "just plain mind-boggling."
"Not only is this an increase in taxes," Schabarum complained, "but it is also an increase in taxes without the vote of the people."
Even though most new taxes require a two-thirds vote of the people, taxes for fire protection and some other critical services can be approved without an election. Assistant Fire Chief Jim Hill said that under state law, the plan would be thrown out if owners whose properties generate more than 50% of the new taxes write to the county in opposition to the proposal.
However, fire officials believe such an uprising is unlikely. Hill said he spent a day at the county hot line "and when people find out we're talking about $15.73 a year, there's almost a sigh of relief. They seem to feel that's not too bad."
Fire officials said they are seeking the temporary tax to offset a budget shortfall of $15 million this year and similar shortfalls expected in coming years.
Gilberg said the price per single-family home will not go beyond $31.46 a year, no matter how large the county's shortfall is in any given year.
Assistant Fire Chief Hill blamed the budget problems on the loss of tax revenues due to Proposition 13, and a more recent decrease of about 6% in funds the department receives from the county out of property tax revenues.
In addition, Hill said, the department has lost $19 million in the past three years because the Legislature dropped a business tax that was once assessed on the inventory owned by local businesses.
"During this time we've been spending our reserves and we have now spent them, and we have no other choice," Hill said.
Fire officials said residents who have received the letter explaining the special tax can call the hot line at (213) 974-1446.