BARSTOW — The City Council took the last step needed to place a sales tax hike to keep the Barstow Fire Protection District solvent on the ballot this fall.
With a unanimous vote Monday night, the City Council adopted a resolution calling for a special election to present a half-cent sales tax measure to voters in November. If approved, the sales tax is expected to generate an estimated $3.8 million per year, with residents paying an average of $47 a year, according to city officials. San Bernardino County's current sales tax rate is 7.75 percent. If this measure is approved, Barstow's sales tax would increase to 8.25 percent.
It would be a special purpose tax, requiring two-thirds approval of Barstow voters. The Council also approved a resolution to earmark $50,000 for election costs. The funds are expected to be reimbursed by the BFPD by next fiscal year.
“Right now, the fire district is being paid for primarily by property owners, which isn’t fair,” Councilman Timothy Silva said. “I honestly feel like if we don’t do this, (the fire district) will go to the county, who will issue a parcel tax and it will be more expensive.”
The sales tax — meant to offset the BFPD’s increased retirement costs — comes on the heels of the district’s transition to a new retirement pool, also approved during Monday’s meeting. The transition to a San Bernardino County Employees’ Retirement Association (SBCERA) retirement pool will cost the fire district $9.1 million.
City officials created a payment plan with the county to offset some of that initial cost, consisting of annual payments of $833,000 for 20 years. A $900,000 loan agreement between the city and BFPD also was approved Monday, with funds from the loan being used for the initial $833,000 pension payment.
Silva addressed concerns about the loan during a discussion of the BFPD agenda items, specifically how the loan may affect the city’s general fund.
“My concern is we're giving this loan to an agency that can't pay it back as it stands now,” Silva said. “And we're relying on an election in November to make up for the loan. My concern is city expenditures.”
However, Assistant City Manager Cindy Prothro and Mayor Pro Tem Carmen Hernandez both said the city’s financial standing “was strong” enough to give the fire district the boost it needs to maintain its autonomy.
“I understand your concerns, but we're also listening to the people who said they want their own Fire Department,” Hernandez said. “Victorville is trying to get their own Fire Department because costs with the county are so high.”
Silva also brought up questions about other options available for the fire district if voters don’t approve the sales tax measure.
“If the tax doesn’t go through, what are our options?” Silva said. “If the fire district is dissolved, would the county absorb it? And what would be the plan to pay back the city?”
After City Manager Curt Mitchell said annexation to the county would be the next option if the sales tax measure fails, Prothro explained that the fire district’s debt would follow it to the county, which would then be responsible for paying back city funds. Other options besides annexation are also still on the table, Prothro said.
The measure will be presented to voters during a special election on Nov. 7.
“It's up to the people in this community to decide for the fire protection district how much your autonomy and independence matters,” City Councilman Merrill Gracey said. “We’re putting this up to you.”
The next City Council meeting is scheduled for May 1. Visit www.barstowca.org for more information.
Paola Baker may be reached at 760-955-5332 or PBaker@VVDailyPress.com. Follow her on Twitter at @DP_PaolaBaker.