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" telephone 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, and could never climb beyond $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.
Fire Chief John Englund told the board 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.
Southeast Cities Affected
In the Southeast area, the tax would be assessed in Artesia, Bell, Bellflower, Bell Gardens, Cerritos, Cudahy, Hawaiian Gardens, Huntington Park, Lakewood, La Mirada, Maywood, Norwalk, Paramount, Pico Rivera, Signal Hill, South Gate, Whittier and unincorporated areas.
Englund said that while many callers to the hot line 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.
He said of the 2,300 calls received as of last week, 1,778 people favored the tax, 159 were against it, and 368 were undecided.
"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, eliminating 75 firefighters' jobs. 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.
Delay in Response Times
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 that 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."
Budget Short $15 Million
Fire officials said they are seeking the temporary new tax to offset a budget shortfall of $15 million this year and similar shortfalls expected in coming years.
Gilberg said that the price per single-family home could never 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 revenue 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.
One City Opposed
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.
In the San Fernando Valley, the tax would be assessed in Agoura Hills, Hidden Hills, Westlake Village and unincorporated areas.
In the San Gabriel Valley, the tax would be assessed in Azusa, Baldwin Park, Bradbury, Claremont, Duarte, Glendora, Industry, Irwindale, La Puente, Rosemead, San Dimas, South El Monte, Temple City, Walnut and unincorporated areas.
On the Westside, the tax would be assessed only in West Hollywood.
In the Glendale area, the tax would be assessed only in La Canada Flintridge.
Fire officials said residents who have received the letter explaining the special tax can call the hot line at 974-1446.