Thousands of Ventura County property owners have filed formal protests against the county's proposed $110-per-parcel tax for fire services, virtually assuring that the fate of the tax will be decided by the voters next year, officials said Wednesday.
Supervisor Vicky Howard said county officials believe that enough protests will arrive by the end of the week to force a special election on the fire tax in June, 1994.
"I've said from the very beginning that this would be on the ballot," Howard said. "That's where it belongs."
Ventura County supervisors April 27 voted to move forward with plans to tax most county homeowners $110 next year to help finance fire protection services.
Without the tax, Ventura County Fire Department officials said, they would be forced to close nine fire stations, lay off up to 200 employees and decimate paramedic and firefighting efforts to offset a state funding cut of $20 million--nearly 40% of the department's budget.
The supervisors agreed to give property owners 45 days to protest the tax, which will come up for a final vote by the supervisors at a public hearing June 29.
According to state law, if formal complaints are filed by property owners representing 5% of the total revenues the county would collect, the county must either drop the matter or hold an election on the assessment. All the supervisors have indicated that they would be willing to put the issue before the voters.
On Friday, the county sent out notices asking 133,800 parcel owners in Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, Moorpark, Ojai, Camarillo, Port Hueneme and the unincorporated areas of the county if they would be willing to pay the tax. The residents were given a form to fill out and send back to the county.
By Wednesday, the county was inundated with protests.
The onslaught of mail has become so burdensome that county officials have had to hire extra personnel to sort the documents.
"I've never seen a protest like this in all the years I've worked for the county," said Faye Willard, a retired clerical worker who was hired to help open and organize the mail.
She said some of the property owners have written messages on their forms.
One note read: "We have lived in our house for 16 years, we hope to retire and stay here . . . but if special assessments continue to be added, we will have to move to another state to retire."
Another property owner wrote: "No more taxes!" One resident simply scrawled: "Go to hell."
"You can tell by the writing that many of them are older people saying they cannot afford what they are paying," Willard said. "I feel really bad for them."
Under the county's plan, the taxes vary according to the type of property.
For example, while homeowners could be taxed a flat rate of $110 annually regardless of the value of their homes, owners of mobile homes would be charged $57.
The owners of vacant properties, meanwhile, would be charged $10.71 for services, while owners of industrial buildings on 10 or more acres would be assessed $8,139 annually.
The county also has the option of increasing the assessments by 5% each year for 10 years.
But Supervisor Maggie Kildee said: "People don't want to pay an extra $100 dollars for the same service they are paying for this year. I'm not surprised at the reaction."
Supervisor John K. Flynn added: "There are lots and lots of people who are struggling. One hundred and 10 dollars is a lot of money for a lot of people. People have received benefit assessment after benefit assessment. They are overwhelmed by it."
Assistant Fire Chief Robert D. Roper said that since the notices were mailed out, the department has received about 500 calls from angry and frustrated property owners.
"I understand that the public doesn't want to pay any more taxes, like myself," Roper said. "The only thing from our perspective is this is the only option we have available to raise the revenue.
"If this fails, we have to hope for some miracle."
Without the funds, response times to emergencies could nearly double to an average of more than six minutes per call, fire officials have said. If the issue is forced to a vote, Fire Department officials said they plan to close the fire stations and lay off personnel starting July 1.
"I've been trying to explain our predicament to the people who call," Roper said. "We may be forced to make drastic reductions."
Roper said Fire Department officials plan to hold a meeting tonight in Simi Valley to answer questions from property owners. The session will begin at 7 p.m. at the Simi Valley Courthouse. More public meetings will be held next month.
In the meantime, Supervisor Maria VanderKolk said county officials will continue lobbying the Legislature not to cut the Fire Department's funding.
"I think this will just give us more ammunition with the state," she said. "Clearly, we are not going to have the money to continue at a certain level of service next year. We are going to have to cut back fire service. The question is how much."