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A fire tax repeal approved by San Bernardino County voters in the June 7 election will not be enforced unless the measure’s proponents win on an appeal.

Measure Z would repeal a tax that brings in $42.7 annually to county firefighters if the Court of Appeal reverses a San Bernardino Superior Court ruling. San Bernardino County voters split 40,000 to 28,500 in favor of the measure.

Measure invalidated

San Bernardino Superior Judge David Cohn invalidated the measure March 28, after he ruled the measure’s proponents lied and misled voters during their campaign.

The ballots had already been printed with the measure when he disqualified it.

Invalidation appealed

The tax-repeal proponents appealed March 30, and the appeal is pending. The Court of Appeal stayed Cohn’s decision until they rule on the appeal.

Tax use

The initiative opponents, including Fire Captain James Grigoli, argued that 15 fire stations will close, that response times will be slowed and that homeowner insurance costs will increase if the tax is repealed.

The San Bernardino County Fire Protection District Service Zone Five is responsible for fighting and preventing fires in 19,278 of San Bernardino County’s 20,053 square miles, according to the complaint filed by the district. Its jurisdiction includes Grand Terrace, Upland, San Bernardino, Needles, Yucca Valley, Helendale Community Services District, the Crest Forest Fire Protection District, the City of Twentynine Palms Water District and all unincorporated areas of the county not already receiving fire protection.

The district receives $42.7 million annually from a special tax of $161 per parcel, first established exclusively for Helendale in 2006, and expanded over time, according to the county counsel’s impartial analysis of the initiative.

Case background

The Red Brennan Group, a political nonprofit funded by a former San Bernardino County resident and telecommunications owner Eric Steinmann, and run by Escondido lobbyist Tom Murphy, challenged the tax in court.

They argued the tax’s expansion was a new tax, which would constitutionally require voter approval.

A 2018 ruling in that case, CIVDS1826559, found that the tax was constitutional, because a tax expansion is not a new tax.

Unconstitutional claims persist

During the measure’s campaign, the proponents claimed the annexation was unconstitutional, despite the 2018 court ruling that said otherwise.

“The County’s sidestep of the provisions of the California Constitution has victimized property owners whose parcels have been annexed and who are now required to pay an ever increasing (up to 3% per year) annual parcel tax they didn’t vote on. Further, without a prohibition in place, additional victims and their properties will potentially be added to [the district] and its tax without their vote of approval,” their initiative read.

The district sued the county registrar Feb. 8, claiming the proponent’s claims are false, and violate both Elections Code Section 18600 and precedent established in the 2008 case, San Francisco Forty-Niners v. Nishioka.

The election code states circulators of local initiatives who knowingly circulate false statements or misrepresentations concerning the purport of any local initiative are guilty of a misdemeanor.

Cohn agreed with the district’s complaint, stating in his tentative ruling that those specific paragraphs violate the law by falsely claiming that the tax is unconstitutional and was improperly adopted.

“The initiative implies that the tax is unconstitutional and was improperly adopted. (See Initiative ¶ 3, 4, 5.) The court has already determined in a previous case that the annexation argument advanced as a ground for constitutional invalidity of the tax is incorrect,” Cohn wrote.

Funding

The Red Brennan Group also funded the Measure Z campaign. Lora Steinmann gave the measure $7,050 through the Red Brennan Group, the entirety of the campaign’s monetary contributions, according to public campaign documents. Eric Steinmann provided $2,800 in non-monetary contributions.

Lora listed her occupation as retired. A 2020 statement of information lists her as CEO, CFO and director of Desmont Properties. The document shows Jeffrey and Eric Steinmann as other officers. Desmont is a residential house and apartment general contractor, according to the document. A 2021 document lists Heinz Steinmann as the CEO and CFO of the company instead of Lora.

Case information

San Bernardino Superior Judge David Cohn presided.

Case number CIVSB2201601. 

Appellate case number E079130.

Read the complaint here.

Read Cohn’s ruling here.

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