San Bernardino fire tax repeal will not be enforced if passed

A measure on Tuesday’s ballot to repeal a special tax on firefighters will not be enforced even if voters vote in favor of it.

San Bernardino Superior Court Judge David Cohn ruled May 31 that the “initiative to repeal the special tax associated with the Fire Protection District Service Area (FP-5),” known as Measure Z on the primary ballot, was “invalid and shall not be enforced or given legal effect.

Cohn’s judgment comes after it was discovered in March that the petition used to collect signatures to put the measure on the ballot contained false or misleading information.

The San Bernardino County Fire District had sued the county’s Registrar of Electors and supporters of Measure Z to prevent the measure from being printed on the ballot.

Although Cohn ruled in favor of the district, supporters of Measure Z filed a petition with a state appeals court, who suspended – or temporarily suspended – Cohn’s March 29 order.

This meant that Measure Z was printed on the ballot while its legal status was still being decided.

In May, the appeals court denied the motion of supporters of the measure and lifted the stay, essentially agreeing with Cohn.

Measure Z is the second attempt – which now appears unsuccessful – to repeal a charge that was levied on properties when the fire protection area, known as FP-5, was expanded in 2018. November 2020, Measure U did not pass after about 52% of voters voted against.

After the County Board of Supervisors voted to expand FP-5, the area annexed more than 19,073 square miles of unincorporated land and some towns. An annual tax was imposed on all plots with the possibility of increasing the fee up to 3% per year.

The current fee stands at $161.98 after county supervisors approved an increase recommended by the fire district last year.

County firefighters say the tax is needed to fund existing emergency services. Revenue from FP-5 is $42.7 million, or 18% of the fire department’s operating budget, Fire Chief Dan Munsey told county supervisors at a meeting in January.

Without the tax revenue, 15 fire stations could be closed, leading to delayed response times and higher home insurance costs, opponents of Measure Z say.

San Bernardino County Fire Chief Dan Munsey speaks at a meeting of county supervisors Jan. 11.

Proponents of Measure Z believe the tax is unfair and that the expansion should have been approved by a two-thirds vote of those affected, as the California Constitution generally requires.

That argument, however, failed in 2019, after Superior Court Judge Donald Alvarez ruled against the Red Brennan Group, a 501(c)4 nonprofit that funded the repeal efforts and sued. in court to stop the tax.

Alvarez cited previous court rulings that constitutional language requiring a two-thirds vote on general or special taxes did not address those imposed in annexations like FP-5.

The fire district pleaded in its lawsuit filed this year that the petition used to collect signatures contained false or misleading information because the statements implied that the tax was unconstitutional despite the judge’s ruling.

“First, the petitioners presented false and misleading information to voters to induce them to sign the initiative,” the fire district wrote in a legal brief opposing the appeals court’s initial ruling allowing the measurement printout. “And now the petitioners seek to trick this Court into letting their initiative fall on the ballot.”

A lawyer for Measure Z supporters argued that false or misleading statements must have been intentional for the initiative to violate the election code and that intentionality has never been proven.

Cohn then ruled in favor of the fire district.

Despite the judgments, Tom Murphy, chairman of the Red Brennan group, said his organization was “committed to repealing” the FP-5 tax.

“We are reviewing all available options to pursue this goal,” he wrote in an email.

Daily Press journalist Martin Estacio can be reached at 760-955-5358 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @DP_mestacio.