ELECTION 2024: Measure W Breakdown
Measure W, FP-5, and the politics of funding fire services
On March 5th, San Bernardino County voters who live within the County’s Fire Protection District Zone 5 will have the opportunity to vote on a ballot measure to repeal the special property tax that funds the fire protection district. A “yes” vote repeals the annual tax of $171, while a “no” vote keeps the tax in place.
If you are a property owner or landlord, this property tax, otherwise known as the FP-5 tax, gets tacked on to your annual property tax bill in October. When it was first enacted in 2006, the special tax was about $108 but came with a stipulation that allowed for 3% annual increases (pending County Supervisor approval). Now, nearly twenty years later, the tax has increased to $171.85. Since its implementation, County Supervisors, who serve as the voting body and budget authority for the San Bernardino County Fire Department, have tacked on the 3% annual increase every year but one.
What happens if the FP-5 tax gets repealed? Will fire departments shut down?The major question pressing voters, bureaucrats, and government officials on Measure W is the question of fire department funding. The FP-5 tax brings in more than $47 million annually for the County Fire Department. This explains why ballot proponents, opponents, and the County Fire Union have collectively spent more than $2 million in political donations via independent expenditure committees, political action committees, advertisement campaigns, and legal fees over the last six years fighting over this tax.1
In a January 9th presentation to the Twentynine Palms City Council, County Fire Chief Dan Munsey went on the record to warn that if the tax gets repealed, the County might not divert money from its General Fund to keep the Twentynine Palms fire station open, which is fully funded by FP-5 revenue.
In its current form, the county general fund is not budgeted to accommodate the loss of FP-5 revenue. Therefore, if the tax gets repealed, County Supervisors would likely be left with no choice but to divert at least some funds from the $4.61 billion dollar County General Fund Budget toward the maintenance and upkeep of the County Fire Protection District.
What is FP-5? With territory encompassing more than 20,000 square miles, San Bernardino County is the largest county in the contiguous United States. 19,000 of those 20,000 square miles are protected by the San Bernardino County Fire Department and fall within what is called the FP-5, or fire protection 5, service zone.
The FP-5 Fire Service Zone originated in the community of Helendale in 2006, when their community service district proposed a ballot measure to fund their own fire department through the county. Then, the zone itself only covered the small community, which has a little more than 6,000 residents.
Over time, and with fire department funding at play, various municipalities annexed into the FP-5 zone. Then, in 2018, when the San Bernardino County Fire Department found itself experiencing budget problems of its own, San Bernardino County Supervisors voted to expand the FP-5 zone to include all unincorporated communities and all communities served geographically by San Bernardino County Fire. This expansion was conducted via the County’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) annexation process and was necessary to accommodate a $20 million anticipated budget shortfall from County Fire. This meant that those annexed into this zone would be paying the annual FP-5 fire service tax.
Now, in 2024, the $47 million brought in from FP-5 revenue accounts for about 18% of the county fire department’s current operating budget.
For some, an annual $171 bill for fire protection is a no-brainer. For others, $171 is the difference between paying a utility bill or buying groceries for the week. Opponents of the expansion argued that they would now be paying a tax they never voted on, with a 3% annual increase that is indefinite.
Who is affected by FP-5? Who resides within the Fire Protection District? The following cities and unincorporated communities are within the FP-5 zone: Yucca Valley, Needles, Twentynine Palms, Upland, San Bernardino, Grand Terrace, Helendale, Landers, Wonder Valley, Johnson Valley, Phelan, Pinon Hills, Wrightwood, Hesperia, Lake Arrowhead, Crestline, Forest Falls, Trona, Amboy, Newberry Springs, Joshua Tree, and Parker Dam.
It is important to note that each city, community, and municipality annexed into the fire protection district has its own unique relationship with the district and unique reasons for joining.
The City of Twentynine Palms, for example, approved being annexed into the County Fire Protection District in August 2015. The move was catalyzed after 2012 when Measure H, a ballot measure initiated by the Twentynine Palms Water District, which was intended to fund fire services to parcels within the Twentynine Palms Water District, did not pass. Without fire service, the City would lose its incorporated status, so annexation was necessary.
If Measure W passes, the City of Twentynine Palms will have to find a way to generate enough annual revenue to fund its own fully operational fire station, which is currently fully reliant on FP-5 funding. One fire station costs over $2 million a year to operate.
Didn’t we already vote on this? Why is it on the ballot again? In November 2020, the effort to repeal the FP-5 special tax lost by a 4% voter margin, or 9,289 votes. The tax repeal then qualified for the ballot again in June 2022. Voters agreed to repeal the tax by nearly a 17% margin and more than 12,000 votes.
Despite the June 2022 vote to repeal meeting the Registrar of Voters required 50%+1 majority, the FP-5 fire service tax was never rescinded because of ongoing litigation. Now the FP-5 fire service fee repeal has yet again met the requirements to be placed on the ballot in March 2024.
Who are the proponents of Measure W? The following political action groups have come forward in favor of Measure W:
Notable signatories in favor of Measure W include former California State Senate Democratic Candidate Ruth Musser-Lopez and Bob Cable, CEO of Upland’s Cable Airport, who spearheaded an Upland lawsuit that resulted in residents receiving a refund for the fire tax from the county. Signatory Albert Vogler of Hesperia, CA, is listed as the trustee of more than fifteen parcels of land within the county.2
Arguments in favor of Measure W include:
The tax was never voted on and approved by a two-thirds majority, making it unconstitutional.
It is a “blanket” tax that is structured unfairly. Undeveloped lots pay the same tax amount as large developed commercial properties—all parcels pay the same flat rate regardless of their size or value.
The 3% annual increase stipulated within the tax exceeds the rate of inflation.
Who are the opponents of Measure W? The following political action groups have come forward against Measure W:
Notable signatories against Measure W include Frank Luckino, former city manager of Twentynine Palms, and Jim Grigoli, president of the San Bernardino County Fire Union.
Arguments against Measure W include:
Increased fire response times and compromised public safety if it passes
Fire station closures due to lack of funding
Increased fire insurance rates or cancellation of fire insurance coverage entirely due to decreased fire protection and changes in Insurance Services Office (ISO) ratings for property insurance coverage.
Increased paramedic response times resulting in delays to emergency care
My local fire department already shut down. What now? This was the unfortunate case for residents in Wonder Valley whose station “temporarily” shut down in 2017 due to water quality concerns. Then, when County Supervisors expanded the FP-5 fire tax to include unincorporated communities, Wonder Valley landowners were assessed the then $157 fire tax yet had decreased fire services. The announcement of Station 45’s permanent closure in 2019 further solidified this.
An empty county fire station in the unincorporated Yucca Mesa community and another off Lear Avenue in Twentynine Palms are further testaments to the dilapidated status of these fire station buildings, which are often closed by the County Fire Department for health and safety concerns.
Wonder Valley resident Beth Sheffield summed up the nuances of the issue in responding to the cancellation of a FP-5 forum. “Out here in Wonder Valley, our fire station was ‘temporarily closed’ due to concerns about the water. That was in 2017. In 2018 the fire tax portion of our property tax, which was about $35 at the time, was increased to $157….In 2019 our fire station was permanently closed. Bottom line is that we now pay over four times more tax, yet we have decreased services, because our emergency services now come from the City of Twentynine Palms, increasing our emergency response times by 10 minutes, which is inadequate for saving lives or homes.”
In Summary With $47 million at risk, the heat around Measure W can be felt far and wide. Some communities depend fully on the FP-5 tax to keep their fire stations open. Without that funding, government officials will need to weigh their budget options to find fire funding. Mail-in ballots were sent out last week. Per the CA Secretary of State, mail-in ballots must be postmarked on or before Election Day. If you prefer to vote in person, you can look up your voting precinct location here. Polls close March 5 at 8 pm.
Author’s note: As a campaign staffer, writer Natalie Zuk contracted with the Inland Empire Business Alliance in 2018 and the Red Brennan Group between 2019-2021, respectively.
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