Tax Failure Leaves California City Worrying About Public Safety Funding

The apparent failure of a public safety tax in Hemet shines the light on an issue many Riverside County cities are facing – how to pay for police and fire services.

Hemet was proposing a 1 percent sales tax increase, with all of the expected $10 million raised going to the police and fire departments.

The semiofficial results show that the measure had majority support, but that was not enough. The vote showed 62.55 percent were in favor of the measure, but as a tax targeted at a specific area, it required a two-thirds supermajority.

There are 34,358 registered voters in Hemet.

Hemet is one of the few cities in the region with its own police and fire departments. Most cities contract for police and/or fire services through the county. Yet they, too, are struggling with how to pay rising costs.

Nine cities are exploring forming a joint policing agency and breaking away from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department as the price they are billed for deputies continues to rise.

Menifee and Temecula are both looking into the idea of putting a public safety tax on the ballot. And Riverside, which has its own police and fire departments, has hired a polling firm to test the waters for a tax measure.

San Jacinto, which saw two utility tax measures fail in recent years, has scaled back on police staffing and Tuesday night took steps toward forming a joint fire department with the Idyllwild Fire Protection Agency.

Calimesa, which also contracts for both services, has asked neighboring Beaumont for a quote on the cost of that city’s police department patrolling its town. It also is looking at fire options as Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Department is threatening to end its contract in a debate over staffing levels.

And Canyon Lake shuttered its lone fire station almost a year ago despite passing a utility tax in 2014 that was supposed to help offset fire and emergency medical response costs.

Shellie Milne, who appears headed toward a November runoff with Chuck Washington in the race to be the 3rd District Riverside County supervisor, was the lone member of the Hemet City Council who opposed the tax, which would have added a penny to each taxable dollar spent in the city.

As a former Tea Party organizer and an anti-tax crusader, she voted in 2012 to contract Hemet’s fire services with the county, a move that was overturned when a new council majority was seated a few months later.

She acknowledges the problem goes above local municipalities.

“Major reforms have to come at the state level,” Milne said. “There’s going to have to be a concentrated effort all the way up the food chain.”

Hemet Mayor Bonnie Wright isn’t ready to give up yet as election officials still had more than 128,000 ballots to count from throughout Riverside County as of Wednesday afternoon.

“It took three weeks to find out I won,” she said in reference to her 2012 election where daily updates from the registrar kept changing the order of candidates.

Wright said the city has been planning in case the measure failed.

“We have to look forward in a positive manner and see what we can accomplish without the measure,” she said. “It will take longer to achieve what we want to achieve. Unfortunately, the community isn’t so patient and they are quick to blame.”

There isn’t a true “what’s next?” scenario, as the city’s budget for public safety will remain static. But plans to add personnel to both the police and fire department will have to wait. Without extra bodies, Fire Station 5 on the east end will remain with just an emergency medical service crew.

“We’re not going to stop trying,” Wright said. “The city is committed to working hard to address Hemet’s public safety needs within the resources available.”

Hemet Fire Chief Scott Brown said he spent the morning talking with his staff.

“I told them that even though the measure didn’t pass, 62 percent of the voters supported us,” he said. “I’m disappointed as chief, but we’re going to do what we can to move forward.”

Gisela Gosch, co-chair of the Yes on Measure E committee, said it’s too soon to say if another tax measure will be proposed.



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