With Canyon Lake’s continued refusal to pay almost $2 million owed under a soon-to-expire contract for fire/emergency-medical services, Riverside County notified the city today it intends to withhold a portion of the city’s property-tax share in order to satisfy the city’s mounting debt.
Under state law a county may withhold a city’s property-tax share to offset any delinquencies due for services rendered. The county collects property taxes apportioned by the state and then provides each city or taxing entity its appropriate share.
The most recent contract, signed by city and county officials, began on April 10, 2012 and expires at midnight on June 30. Canyon Lake has failed to make any payments on the debt in a year, and by the end of June will owe Riverside County $1.9 million if it continues to ignore its payment obligations.
“It appears the city strategy is to stall for as long as possible, hoping the county will reduce costs because of our concern about residents,” County Executive Office Jay Orr said. “By law the county must recover full costs for the services it provides and we are gravely concerned about how Canyon Lake will protect residents when the current contract runs out at the end of the month.”
Riverside County has explained that for several reasons, it cannot accept partial payment for services already rendered. Partial payment is all that city officials have offered. Accepting only a portion would be unfair to other cities that stand by their word and pay for services under the terms they approved in their contracts; it would harm other county residents who depend on funding for services countywide; and the City of Canyon Lake agreed to pay the full cost of services when it signed the contract. Canyon Lake is the only contract city currently delinquent on its payments. The county even has offered the city a payment plan to bring its account current.
Canyon Lake is among 21 cities and agencies that contract with the county for fire and EMS services as part of a regional fire system. Despite city complaints about service costs, the city already benefits greatly from the regional system because city crews only respond outside Canyon Lake in less than 5 percent of all city responses. Other outside agencies in the regional system already respond to 60 percent of the calls within the city limits.
Under state law, cities are required to provide fire protection to their residents. The city is allowed to provide fire services on its own, or contract with the county or any other provider for services. Cities often contract with Riverside County, which administers contracts for fire services provided through CALFIRE/Riverside County Fire Department.
Recently, Riverside County offered a new one-year contract based on terms in the existing contract. The city rebuffed the offer and said it would not pay for minimum service levels that have been established specifically to ensure the safety of residents and firefighters. Canyon Lake notified Riverside County a year ago that it did not intend to renew the current fire contract when it ends on June 30. If that date arrives without the city resolving the debt and approving a contract extension, the county would honor the city’s request to close the only fire station within the city.
According to recent news reports, city officials have said nearly $800,000 a year in a utility users tax that Canyon Lake voters recently approved to help keep the city solvent will not do so in the long term, and disincorporation – giving up cityhood – is a possibility.