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An initiative that would have repealed a fire district tax in San Bernardino County has been found invalid by the California Court of Appeal. Voters will still consider whether to repeal the tax in the March 5, 2024, election.

The published ruling found that Measure Z contained false and misleading information, in violation of the California Elections Code.

The ruling affirms a decision by San Bernardino Judge David Cohn that the initiative was invalid, and could not be enforced. Cohn’s decision came too late to remove it from the July 2022 ballot, where it was approved by voters 42,015 to 20,888.

Attorneys for both the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District, the plaintiff; and initiative supporter Robert Cable, the defendant, did not respond to requests for comment.

The initiative had claimed the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District’s 2020 expansion of the $157 per-parcel tax to Grand Terrace, Yucca Valley and the county’s unincorporated areas was unconstitutional. The tax provides the district with funds to operate its fire, rescue and emergency medical services. 

The initiative reads: “The California Constitution states, ‘No local government may impose, extend, or increase any special tax unless and until that tax is submitted to the electorate and approved by a two-thirds vote.’ Despite this clear language, the FP-5 special tax was imposed by elected representatives on 1 million county residents without their consent. . . . Citizens must follow the law and so must their representatives!!”

It continues, “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.”

San Bernardino Superior Court had previously found that the expansion of the tax was constitutional in a lawsuit brought by the same group that funded the repeal initiative. The court found that the expansion of a tax does not require voters’ approval. 

The Red Brennan Group, which supported the initiative and the earlier lawsuit, is funded by telecommunications owner Eric Steinmann, who owns telecommunications towers in the San Bernardino mountains.

A new initiative, Measure W, will allow San Bernardino voters to decide whether to repeal the tax in the March 5 election. The initiative is brought by Cable. They argue that the tax falls on residents in the poorest parts of the county, and that many of the taxed parcels are vacant land under the responsibility of CAL FIRE, not San Bernardino County. Their argument still says that the tax expansion violated the state constitution.

“A two-thirds approval vote, as required by the state constitution of every voter in the fire district was never even submitted to the voters,” their argument says.

The argument against the repeal says that the measure would eliminate 20% of San Bernardino County’s fire fighting budget, will close fire stations, worsen paramedic response, and raise fire insurance rates.

Case information

Bradley Hertz of The Sutton Law Firm and Nicholas Sanders of Sanders Political Law represented the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District.

Deputy County Counsel Jolena Grider represented San Bernardino County.

C.D. Michel, Joseph Di Monda and Alexander Frank of Michel & Associates represent Robert Cable.

Fourth District Court of Appeal, Division Two, Associate Justice Carol Codrington wrote the opinion, which Presiding Justice Manuel Ramirez and Justice Art McKinster joined. 

Case No. CIVSB2201601

Appellate Case No. E079130

Read the ruling here.

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