Christopher Lucero | Who Should Bear the Cost of Wildland Fires?

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Los Angeles County is most populous county in the U.S. California is the largest economy among all the states in the U.S. California real estate of all types is in a very high-value market, with many Los Angeles County locales at or above two to three times the national average per square foot. California has a love for its purple mountains and wildlands, and that leads to an interesting situation regarding their protection and our enjoyment of them. California also has a love for the automobile. In Los Angeles County there are more automobiles than there are people.

Most nearby wildlands exist as state (8) or federal lands (20), not as Los Angeles County property. Wildlands pay no taxes for their preservation or protection. Automobiles are by their nature in transit and not within a defined locale for very long, nor does any locale have a way to tax “foreign” vehicles for emergency response or prohibit their entry without appropriate fee.

Measure FD’s marketing would have the property owners within the 56 special assessment districts believe that it is dutiful or otherwise their responsibility to ameliorate, prevent or respond to emergencies in wildlands. It may be reasonable for the commercial and residential property owners who are in proximity to these lands to be subject to higher levies via taxes for special protection. It is certain that their fire insurance premiums reflect actuarially determined risk, though measuring that risk is difficult because of the lack of data available to property owners.

Of those 56 special assessment districts, there are but a handful that are anywhere near the 28 forests that are the bulk of natural fuel for wildland fires. There are approximately 1.3 million addresses in these special assessment districts, a fair estimate of the number of deeded properties therein. Each will be effectively paying double the tax levy they are paying now, for an average of $200 per deeded property, up from the current average of $100 per property. This got federal attention in May 2019 when President Trump blocked reimbursement for California local agency activity to control fires on federal wildlands. Though eventually Trump capitulated, it is worthwhile to reexamine the thought. Consider: If control of these fires is already being reimbursed federally, how does their control become marketing fodder for advocates of a new tax on locals?

 Fire service for state forests already has an allocated and taxed entity: CalFire. Federal lands already have an entity: the U.S. Forest Service. Why are the advocates for Measure FD asking for taxpayers in special assessment districts to pay for services they have almost no proximity to, and face no risk from? Under what circumstances does the provision of social construct become unreasonable? Why are these same property owners also paying for fire insurance when the incidence of structural fires is diminishingly low, and the highest incidence of “firefighter response” is not related to buildings and deeded land, but to wildlands or vehicular travel?

Indeed, the solution to wildland fire loss control seems to be in individual property owners taking responsibility, according to Fred Roach, a retired Forest Service firefighter, in an interview with CBS news after the fires in Kern County in 2017.

CBS was with Mr. Roach and Kern Fire Chief Brian Marshall, inspecting the results. They stood near Mr. Roach’s home, among his neighbors’ plots where there were only cinders remaining. Mr. Roach’s home survived because he had prepared it and removed nearly all sources of ignition, which he described to be rather easy and common sense.

There is concern in our modern world for the power of big money and influence, most often associated with the likes of Amazon, Facebook, and 501c political organizations. However, the industry/regulatory capture that these iconic organizations represent are not the only players among the large and powerful who manipulate and use the most modern marketing techniques to apply emotional and/or fear-based manipulation. If the fear is reasonable and the emotion is level-headed, property owners can make good, risk-based decisions. If data are shrouded, or not forthright, an opportunity for deception is ripe.

Taxpayers in these special assessment districts have no taxpayer advocate. The nearest advocacy might come from Caltax.org, but the Caltax mission is for statewide tax control. Thus, local/county taxpayers are vulnerable, unrepresented and unprotected.

The advocates for Measure FD are the firefighters themselves, through their union. There are approximately 3,200 in the main union backing Measure FD. For each mailer campaign sent to 1.3 million postal addresses, every one of those 3,200 members is spending, through the union, about $200; for each TV spot, $8.

Consider those numbers in light of what is at stake.

What organization would not spend $1 million for each mailing, of which we have received at least three so far? What organization would not spend $31,000 for every TV spot, of which there have been maybe 30 or 40 so far? It is fair to estimate that when there is an annual $134 million at stake, the one-time investment of $4.7 million (spent thus far) is a reasonable gamble for the organization to make. Any Wall Street investment bankers would be Pavlovian with anticipation at such a prospect.

Why would property owners subsidize the creation of a new bureaucracy and new job categories and thereby support static job descriptions and inflexible union rules where it would be more sensible and cost-effective to change the union rules to match the new needs and reduce the inefficiencies?

Please seriously consider these things when you decide on March 3. Do property owners really need to continue subsidizing the protection of state and federal lands, of automobile incidents that may or may not be of our citizens or even within or nearby our locales? When state and federal taxpayers already pay taxes to other organizations such as CalFire and the Forest Service for such protection, how does one leap to the conclusion that property in urban and suburban locales has an obligation to provide for that service twice over?

Christopher Lucero is a Saugus resident.

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