A close inspection of the May 3rd agenda for Mendocino County's Board of Supervisors shows this item in the Consent Calendar: “Denial of Claim from Mendocino Redwood Company, LLC for a Refund of Property Taxes.”
In only the way minutes of a public meeting can do, one might think, by reading literally, that Mendocino Redwood Company, LLC (MRC) was asking for a refund of its entire property tax. What MRC wants refunded is the tax charged to them under Albion-Little River Fire Protection District's Measure U. The Measure M tax was passed by an overwhelming majority of the voters in the Albion-Little River Fire Protection District (ALRFPD) in 2014. The 2015-2016 tax year is the first in which the monies from Measure M are being collected as a part of property tax bills. MRC's portion of the Measure M tax is $19,668.36. MRC's letter to the Board of Supervisors asks for a refund of $9, 334.18 for their first half of the yearly fire district tax.
As daily readers of the AVA online already know, despite odd protestations by MRC's legal representative, the Board of Supervisors denied MRC's claim, without prejudice.
According to county tax records MRC owns 8,269 acres within the Albion-Little River Fire Protection District. For comparison, yours truly is the trustee of a Non-Industrial Timber Management Plan (NTMP) property of 180 acres alongside the Albion River. I paid a little over $200 of my county property tax bill to ALRFPD.
So why is MRC objecting to the payment to the Albion-Little River Fire Protection District? Keep in mind this is a volunteer fire department. Therein lies one of the potential problems for MRC. It owns about 220,000 acres of timberland throughout Mendocino County, much of it within the boundaries of volunteer fire districts/departments. If MRC acquiesces to the ALRFPD tax, then an entity like the Comptche Volunteer Fire Department (CVFD) might be next to propose, and pass, a similar ballot measure. The CVFD covers acreage at least twice the size of the ALRFPD.
MRC's straightforward answer to why it opposes ALRFPD's Measure M comes in the supporting documents submitted to the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors. In those documents one of MRC's attorneys, Stephen Johnson (of the firm Mannon, King, & Johnson) cites California Health and Safety Code 13811 as the primary objection to Measure M. This code states, “Territory which has been classified as a state responsibility area may be included in a [fire] district, except for commercial forest lands which are timbered lands declared to be in a state responsibility area [SRA]. The executive officer of the local agency formation commission shall give mailed notice of the commission's hearing on any proposal to include a state responsibility area in a district, whether by annexation or formation, to the Director of Forestry and Fire Protection. The commission may approve the proposal. Upon inclusion of a state responsibility area in a district, whether by formation or annexation, the state shall retain its responsibility for fire suppression and prevention on timbered, brush, and grass-covered lands. The district shall be responsible for fire suppression and prevention for structures in the area and may provide the same services in the state responsibility area as it provides in other areas of the district.”
Johnson's letter to the Board of Supervisors italicizes the phrase, “except for commercial forest lands which are timbered lands declared to be in a state responsibility area.”
Mendocino Redwood Company may have a valid legal point there. However, readers may want to recall that under the state responsibility areas (SRA), supposedly governed and protected by CalFire, MRC pays a grand total of $120 for Cal Fire's protection of its 220,000 acres of commercial timberland in Mendocino County. The Macdonald Ranch pays the same amount for Cal Fire protection of 180 acres, which is predominantly timberland as well. The catch is that SRA fees — note that the state doesn't want to call much of anything a tax — are based on dwellings. Therefore, the 180 acre Macdonald Ranch, with one house, pays the same amount in SRA fees as MRC's 220,000 acres of commercial timberland because there is only one habitable dwelling on MRC's property.
MRC is paying $120 annually for SRA protection of its massive acreage, but wants to be free of any taxation or fees charged by volunteer fire departments/districts because Health and Safety Code 13811 says those volunteer fire districts lie within SRAs, thus exempting commercial timberlands.
Joseph Heller may be dead, but Catch-22 lives on.
Attorney Johnson's letter to the Board of Supervisors was dated December 8, 2015, a full month before the ALRFPD held its own tax assessment appeals hearings. At that meeting, John Andersen, the heir apparent to Mike Jani in the forestry division of MRC, briefly cited the “commercial timberlands are within SRA, not local fire districts” claim. The ALRFPD board, with little discussion, voted to deny MRC's appeal by a unanimous vote.
The county denial is just another step in the process. It allows MRC to state in court that it has exhausted all avenues within the local political system. It is also apparent that MRC will likely spend more on legal fees than the $19,668 yearly fire tax imposed by the Albion Little River Fire Protection District.
As stated before, MRC may be looking long term here. If other volunteer fire departments like Comptche (it is safe to say that members of the Comptche fire board are at least considering a similar measure) start taxing MRC by the acre, it could add up to a sizable amount in the long run; an amount MRC might want to nip in the bud via lawsuit.
Of course, there's another reason for MRC to deny money to our local volunteer fire departments. Mendocino Redwood Company and its companion corporation, Humboldt Redwood Co., are owned by members of the Fisher family. Along with owning the Gap Inc., purveyors of cheaply made clothing through brands like Old Navy and Banana Republic, members of the Fisher family also possess a controlling interest in the Oakland Athletics baseball club.
The Oakland Athletics routinely rank in the bottom five of major league baseball payrolls. This year they rank 27th out of 30 teams in total payroll. If you look at median salary the A's are dead last. That median line is important because the A's routinely trade away higher salaried players in mid-season for inexpensive minor league prospects. If an Oakland Athletic player is showing signs of true stardom for a season or two, boom, they're gone. In 2013 and 2014 A's third baseman Josh Donaldson finished in the top ten in voting for the American League's Most Valuable Player Award. Donaldson was headed for a big salary payday. See ya, traded to the Toronto Blue Jays, where Donaldson proceeded to win the MVP award last season. Oakland's general manager, Billy Beane, has gained renown for his so-called “Moneyball” method of running the team, but part of Beane's wheeler dealer role has been forced on him by the consistent cheapskate mentality of ownership. Star players have been traded or let go to free agency from the time of Jason Giambi, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito on to Gio Gonzalez (presently among the National League leaders in earned run average [ERA]) and Donaldson.
In short, the Fisher family is loathe to spend big bucks long term. They'd rather shovel a healthy sum to their legal team now than pay their share in volunteer fire department taxes for years to come.
(Malcolm Macdonald's novel, Outlaw Ford, can be found, reasonably priced, at his website: malcolmmacdonald.com.)