A Burning Tax Issue
The wildfires in Southern California should have taught us two major lessons: State and local governments need to be better prepared for predictable disasters and, when it comes to emergency services, you get what you pay for.
Wildfires in Southern California happen often enough that communities should not be surprised by them. The fires in 2003, 2004, 2005 and now 2007 should serve as ample reminders of that sad fact of life.
But who should pay for the equipment and staff needed to fight fires? Are these disasters the responsibility of federal and state taxpayers? Or should San Diegans pay more for fire protection or face the economic consequences?
Historically, property taxes have been used to pay for fire and police protection. Given that the value of fire loss is directly related to the value of property, it makes sense to use property taxes (which are based on property values) rather than state or federal income taxes (which are paid by those who may or may not have property to protect). This aligns the cost of providing protection to those who most benefit.
However, people are increasingly reluctant to pay property taxes. Many states are talking about reform, with some states, including Georgia and Indiana, even proposing to eliminate the levy. But if they do, what will replace these funds and who will pay for needed community services?
Thanks to Proposition 13, Californians currently operate in a world where property tax rate increases are unavailable to provide additional services, such as specialized fire equipment. Development keeps spreading, but with 28 different fire protection agencies and tax-payer resistance, individual communities within San Diego have little incentive to invest in the costly equipment needed to fight these increasingly common big fires.
Proposition 13, passed into law in 1978, limits property taxes to one percent of assessed value. Just as troubling the law froze allocated funds to governments within each county to the share that each taxing district received in 1975. Because San Diego didn't have a county-wide fire district in 1975, it has no new access to property tax revenues, unless merged existing districts are willing to combine their funds, an unlikely prospect for the haves. As a result, a new fire-district's funding would have to be approved by voters or property-owners within the county and would need to take the form of a parcel tax or some other revenue source unrelated to property values San Diegans have typically been reluctant to okay these other new taxes. Other options could include developer fees for new communities or privatizing fire service, but this additional funding won't solve the coordination issue.
California could fix its problem by revamping the allocation system of property taxes within each county to better reflect current and future population patterns and needs. However, the state has been singularly unsuccessful in prior attempts at reform—given the winners and losers such a reform would create.
More broadly, though, governments need to take a hard look at how they want to pay for damages from fires, and other disasters. And they need to do a much better job of informing voters about what they are getting for their tax dollars. The alternative—creating more funding restrictions and making it harder to put out or prevent fires like those that ravaged San Diego.