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Thursday, Dec. 27, 2007 | The television commercial promoting Proposition 172 in 1993 exuded urgency, even for a political campaign ad.

Quick cuts between speeding fire engines, bad guys in handcuffs, and shimmering flames grabbed viewers’ eyes.

With howling sirens and garbled radios interspersed in the background, a baritone narrator chimed in: “Californians depend on their firefighters and cops, every hour of every day. But budget reductions are threatening to make drastic cuts to our public safety.”

The goal of the ad: Sell a half-cent sales tax to help California’s counties and cities replenish their coffers for public safety. The initiative followed the decision by then-Gov. Pete Wilson and the state Legislature to siphon property taxes away from the local governments to help pay for schools.

It passed, and after 14 years, Proposition 172 has fallen short of replacing the $2.3 billion that Sacramento took away from the counties and cities. And leaders from local city governments and the firefighting community say fire protection has been especially shortchanged after being placed front-and-center in the marketing campaign for the tax initiative.

Instead, the bulk of money in nearly every corner of the state, including San Diego County, has gone to county law enforcement programs, such as the sheriff, district attorney and jails.

In San Diego County, which does not have a countywide fire department despite deficiencies in the region’s fire responses, the Board of Supervisors spends 72 percent of the Proposition 172 funds on the Sheriff’s Department, 20 percent on the district attorney and 8 percent on the probation.

“Those of us in fire who tried to get this thing passed were misled, bottom line,” former city of San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman said.

Cities have also coveted the larger slice given to county governments. Counties were hit the hardest after the property tax shift, but they’ve been able to recapture their losses much more rapidly than cities.

On the average, counties receive about 95 percent of the funds, with the rest trickling down to cities.

Counties have on average recovered $3 for every $5 they lost, while cities have only been compensated to the tune of $1 for every $5 they lost.

Cities play a significant role in providing fire protection to San Diego County, while the county government plays a relatively small part. Special fire protection districts, which protect much of the county’s backcountry, don’t receive any Proposition 172 money because they didn’t lose funding from the property tax shift.

As county boards of supervisors across the state continue to bypass handing out Proposition 172 funds for other public safety functions, critics say the 1993 ballot measure amounted to a bait and switch.

Bowman, who was fire chief of Anaheim at the time of the 1993 proposition, remembers that fire protection played a particularly integral role in marketing the sales tax measure. With polls showing that Proposition 172’s prospects were shaky just weeks before the election, a fire that destroyed 441 structures in Orange County became a rallying cry. Footage of firefighters dousing the fire was aired just before Election Day, when the initiative sailed to victory.

“Now we know the public voted for something and they didn’t know how the money was going to be spent,” he said.

The debate over Proposition 172 has been aired in some of the more obscure public policy arenas since 58 percent of the voters in California approved the tax measure in 1993. Defenders and even some critics of the current arrangement say it’s a tired issue, and that it’s unrealistic to expect fire protection to get a bigger chunk of the money.

“It’s like looking through the window at a car dealership at a car you can’t afford. We want it, but we can’t get it,” said Augie Ghio, chief of the San Miguel Fire Protection District in East County. “Most fire agencies would love to tap into 172, but the reality of that happening is slim.”

But as county officials scramble to assemble a plan for bolstering the region’s firefighting capabilities following the firestorms that tore through the region in October, those advocating to use Proposition 172 funds for fire protection are trying to revive the debate.

In La Mesa, Mayor Art Madrid and City Councilman Dave Allen complain the city’s Fire Department isn’t fairly compensated for aiding firefighting efforts outside the city limits. When La Mesa fire engines and personnel are sent outside their jurisdiction, the city ends up paying other firefighters overtime to backfill the posts that are abroad, they said.

“Until we get 172 money, we are essentially subsidizing the county when it comes to fire protection,” said Allen.

Allen is among several lawmakers and fire officials who have tried to target the sales tax revenue. They complain that it’s unfair for the sheriff, who patrols the unincorporated areas of San Diego County and contracts with just a few other cities, to receive the lion’s share.

The county has dug in its toes on the issue, saying that the sheriff and district attorney depend very heavily on Proposition 172 revenues and that cutting its share will significantly harm the services they provide.

“Changing this would have a direct impact on the public safety of each and every person in the county of San Diego,” District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said.

But critics insist counties are still straying from the original intent of the ballot measure. Fire protection must become a higher priority than some of the other areas that currently receive the money.

Former state Sen. Steve Peace, who brokered legislation in 1996 that allowed San Diego County cities a marginally larger share of the Proposition 172 pie, thinks counties around the state are using too much of the money toward district attorneys.

“I would have written the DA out … it clearly wasn’t the intent,” Peace said. “It was supposed to be for police and fire.”

Even Dianne Jacob, the East County supervisor who defends the formula, acknowledges the public was misled when advertisements in 1993 claimed firefighters would benefit.

“No question about it, it was a sham,” she said.

Jacob hinted at a threat that Proposition 172 critics said is all too familiar. She hinted that cities could expect to receive bills from the county to pay for other sheriff and district attorney services, such as booking inmates at county jails and prosecuting crimes in their cities, if the cities were ever to prevail in their quest to garner more funds.

“The cost of that is far more expensive than what cities could ever get from more 172 funds,” Jacob said.

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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