Randy Pench / rpench@sacbee.com

The Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District has decided to scrap a proposed $27.50 annual assessment for property owners.

Metro Fire abandons property owner assessment

Published: Wednesday, Apr. 9, 2014 - 11:00 pm
Last Modified: Thursday, Apr. 10, 2014 - 10:04 am

The Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District has decided to scrap a proposed $27.50 annual assessment for property owners.

Community complaints about Metro Fire’s personnel costs and an implied legal threat led Fire Chief Kurt Henke to decide Tuesday against asking property owners for the assessment, he said in a meeting with The Sacramento Bee’s Editorial Board.

The Sacramento Taxpayers Association and other conservative groups criticized the proposal, saying Metro Fire has not done enough to reduce personnel costs. Metro Fire has had some of the highest paid firefighters in the region, but Henke argued that firefighters made great concessions in recent years to help reduce layoffs and station closures.

“I have cut more than anyone could expect,” he said.

Nevertheless, Henke said, “I want to spend more time consulting with my board members and key stakeholders to evaluate our options before asking my board to commence a balloting process.”

Ken Payne, president of the Sacramento Taxpayers Association, applauded Henke’s decision.

“It was a good decision to let this lay for now and tighten their belts some,” he said.

Henke also cited a letter from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association in his decision. In an April 2 letter to the district, association president Jon Coupal and Director of Legal Affairs Tim Bittle argued that the district’s proposal does not meet the law’s requirements for benefit assessment. They suggested that if the district instead pursued a special tax that requires supermajority voter approval, it could go that route “knowing it will not be sued,” the letter states.

In an interview, Coupal said he would not characterize the letter as a legal threat. However, he said the association likely would have sued if the district had proceeded with the assessment proposal.

Assessments can be used only for a “special benefit” conferred on a particular property, such as sidewalks or curbs and gutters, he said. They cannot be used for general services such as police and fire services, he said.

A special tax requires a two-thirds vote of the electorate, while the proposed assessment would have been decided by a majority of property owners, said Coupal, whose association authored the law that governs assessments in California.

While the district’s legal counsel disputes Coupal’s arguments, Henke said “we have to consider the impact protracted litigation would have on Metro Fire’s ability to deploy these funds if property owners were to approve an assessment.”

The district board was scheduled to vote next week on whether to ask property owners to approve the assessment. The assessment was expected to raise $12 million a year and would have been used to reopen fire stations closed during the recession.

Henke said the district is facing a $2 million shortfall in the fiscal year starting July 1. He said he doesn’t anticipate any layoffs but the district will have to reduce positions through attrition and close two engine companies now funded by grants.

Call The Bee’s Brad Branan, (916) 321-1065. Follow him on Twitter @BradB_at_SacBee.

Read more articles by Brad Branan

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