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Little of Tax Hike Goes to Fight Fires

November 01, 2003|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Ten years ago this week, firestorms tore through Altadena, Laguna Beach and Malibu, destroying 960 buildings -- and saving Proposition 172.

The measure, on the Nov. 2, 1993, ballot, had been lost in obscurity to most voters until fires erupted just a week before election day. Its backers quickly crafted a television advertisement with fresh footage of heroic firefighters to urge voters to approve Proposition 172, which dedicated a half-cent sales tax increase to city and county public safety programs.

Proposition 172 passed, most strongly in Southern California. But in the decade since, very little of the more than $18.5 billion it has generated has gone to firefighters.

In the Southern California counties scorched this week by what is likely to be the most expensive series of fires in state history, supervisors have directed nearly all of the Proposition 172 money to the sheriff's, district attorney's and probation departments.

Firefighters who have long been irritated by the issue say they are now angry enough to do something about it.

"In our view, it's just not right that a proposition that was passed on the basis of what it would do for police and fire, and was pushed over the 50% mark by the public's response to a major fire, has yielded so little for the fire service," said Carroll Wills, a spokesman for the California Professional Firefighters.

In Orange County, where none of $1.9 billion in Proposition 172 money has gone to the county fire authority, firefighters say they intend to ask supervisors for any money generated beyond a 2% annual growth in the sales tax revenue.

As it is, the sheriff's and district attorney's offices now divide all of Orange County's Proposition 172 money. "We are asking for such an infinitesimally small amount of money that it's almost pathetic," said Joe Kerr, leader of the Orange County Professional Firefighters.

If supervisors reject that request, he said, firefighters may launch a county initiative, asking voters to redirect 25% of the Proposition 172 money to the county fire agency.

"The reason we're getting more aggressive ... is there's smoke in the sky," Kerr said. "We're hoping to right the wrong."

Firefighters are bolstering their argument with an April opinion from the attorney general's office stating that county supervisors have the discretion each year to change how they distribute Proposition 172 money. That discretion includes giving money to public safety agencies that haven't gotten the money in the past.

Fire chiefs simply haven't been as politically savvy or aggressive in persuading supervisors to dedicate money to fire protection, Wills said.

"Local county sheriffs, because they're elected, were much more politically astute in the early stages following the passage of Prop. 172," he said.

Local government officials said they give the bulk of the Proposition 172 money to law enforcement because fire districts generally have a separate, more reliable source of revenue through property taxes.

The Orange County Fire Authority, for example, serves 22 cities. Fifteen of those cities earmark property tax revenue for fire protection. Another seven directly pay the authority for fire services.

In Los Angeles County, the Fire Department is supported through a special tax on property owners that was approved by voters.

"Traditionally, people will vote for fire; they will vote for parks," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke. "They won't vote for prisons and they definitely won't for the D.A."

Last month, Los Angeles County supervisors voted to reduce that tax by $3 a year to $49.93 per home. Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman endorsed the reduction, saying that higher-than-anticipated property tax revenue and a state payment of $18 million stemming from a lawsuit had put the department on sound financial footing.

That's not the case in Orange County, said union chief Kerr, who complained that the Orange County Fire Authority has 36 fire engines staffed with only three firefighters each, when new standards require four.

"The promise was that some of this money was going to go to firefighting protection," he said.

In San Bernardino County, where all the Proposition 172 money is split among the sheriff's, district attorney's and probation departments, Supervisor Fred Aguiar said the Fire Department gets adequate general fund money. But he said that he would like to see any growth in Proposition 172 revenues earmarked for fire protection.

Top fire officials have not sought the money, Aguiar said, but rank-and-file firefighters support the idea. "Once we get through this crisis ... that's probably one of the issues we're going to talk about," he said.

In Ventura County, administrators have battled over Proposition 172 dollars almost from the moment they became available.

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