By Mark Gutglueck
In what is surely a coincidence or accident of history, two San Bernardino County cities in the last fortnight took what appear to be irrevocable steps toward transferring their respective fire departments into the jurisdiction of the county fire division.
On August 19 at a specially called meeting, the Twentynine Palms City Council approved a resolution calling for Twentynine Palms’ fire protective services to be annexed by the San Bernardino County Fire District.
With councilwoman Cora Heiser dissenting, the council voted 4-1 in favor of the resolution.
On August 24, the San Bernardino County City Council voted 4-3 to outsource fire protection service in the county seat to the county through annexing the city into a fire protection district. Councilmen John Valdivia, Henry Nickel and Benito Barrios opposed the shuttering of the 137-year-old fire department.
Both the Twentynine Palms and San Bernardino changeovers yet need the blessing of the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission, which is headed by executive director Kathleen Rollings-McDonald. Both county takeover proposals are driven by financial considerations.
In 25,768-population 29 Palms, the fire department is not now nor has ever been administered by the city, which incorporated in 1987. Rather, the 29 Palms Fire Department, which has been in existence since 1957, has always been under the control of the Twentynine Palms Water District. Over the last several years, a group of residents have put pressure on the city and city council to have the city take on responsibility for the fire department.
In 2012, Rollings-McDonald and other members of the Local Agency Formation Commission staff released findings indicating that the water department’s continued stewardship of the fire department was unsustainable given the financial constraints under which it must function. District operations are entirely defrayed by an annual $80 special assessment imposed upon all residential and commercial parcels within the 55 square miles within the Twentynine Palms City Limits and the 33 square miles of unincorporated county area that also falls under the water district/fire department’s 88-square mile jurisdiction.
The city does not contribute to or in any way subsidize the operation of the fire department. Rollings-McDonald and the Local Agency Formation Commission staff came to its conclusion in some measure because that year voters within the water district jurisdiction rejected Measure H, which would have increased the special tax customers of the Twentynine Palms Water District pay to $120 per unit annually. The measure failed by a margin of 850 votes of endorsement, or 48.27 percent to 911 in opposition, or 51.73 percent, during the mail-in balloting concluded on April 17, 2012.
Thus, the department, which at its peak grew to include two fire stations and seven firefighters to cover the department’s 88-square mile jurisdiction, has been forced to downsize to function within the financial confines of the $1,244,800 in revenue from the annual proceeds of the special tax imposed on residents and businesses. Current fire chief Jim Thompson has pared operations such that the department is run out of a single fire station, employing only himself and four other paid firefighters, augmented by 28 reserve/volunteer firefighters, all of whom are aspiring professional firemen who have attended a fire academy. Nearly all of them return to their homes in the more distant areas in San Bernardino County, or Los Angeles, Orange or Riverside counties upon the conclusion of their single 24-hour shift each week.
An earlier proposal by the county to take on firefighting duties in Twentynine Palms made in 2013 was rejected after County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig said that for him to function within the $1.244 million funding limit, he would need to reduce the department to just three paid firefighters. In the interim, citizens and supporters of a locally-controlled and administered fire department have sought to wheedle, cajole, shame or beg the Twentynine Palms City council into having the city take ownership of the fire department, but a series of city managers – Richard Warne, Joe. Guzzetta, Ron Peck, Andrew Takata, and the current Frank Luckino – mindful of the city’s limited financial means and limited ability to take on further financial liabilities, advised against it. Only Heiser has said she is willing to brave the economic uncertainty and take on the fire department as a municipal division.
The water district board of directors, staggering under the responsibility of running the fire department, after years of seeking to work out a cooperative arrangement with the city for the operation of the fire department, in June called for the creation of an ad-hoc committee to consider the fire department’s fate, essentially signaling the water district would no longer go it alone in propping up the fire department. On August 5, the water district board of directors initiated on a 4-to-1 vote a service annexation application with the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission for fire protection in the city and its surrounding sphere of influence. The Twentynine Palms City Council’s vote on August 19 endorsed the water district’s request.
In San Bernardino, the fire department has been a municipal entity since 1878, nine years after the city incorporated as the county’s first city.
The decision to dissolve the fire department was a tortuous and torturous one, brought on by severe financial challenges facing the city. After more than two decades of a deteriorating local economy and several budgetary cycles of deficit spending, the city filed for Chapter Nine bankruptcy protection in 2012. Both past and current city leaders have stated the belief that some of the city’s financial challenge is attributable to what they characterize as overly generous wages guaranteed to the city’s public safety employees.
Provisions put into the San Bernardino City Charter by means of a citywide vote in 1939 – which became known as Section 186 – require that the city’s public safety employees – firefighters and police officers – be paid on a scale equal to the average pay of police officers and firefighters in ten similarly-sized California cities.
San Bernardino, the county seat and the largest city in the county, has a population of 213,708. Yearly, city officials and police and fire union heads start with a list of California cities with populations between 150,000 and 250,000. In turns, each removes a city from that list until ten remain. Salaries are then computated upon the average pay to that particular group – firefighters or fire department management or policeman or police management – in the remaining ten cities.
Despite the city’s bankruptcy filing it has continued to give firefighters and police officers raises in keeping with the provisions of Section 186 of the city charter. The city council last year put on the ballot a referendum to remove Section 186 from the city’s charter. The city’s police and fire unions strongly opposed the initiative, known as Measure Q, and in the face of the spirited campaign against it, the initiative was defeated.
In the current fiscal year, police department and fire department operations represent 68 percent of the spending out of the city’s general fund. Salaries make up the lion’s share of those departments’ operating budgets. A majority of the city council is convinced that the continuation in the escalation of public safety employee pay in a city that has declared bankruptcy and is stiffing its other creditors is both unseemly and unsustainable.
As a consequence, city manager Allen Parker, in conjunction with Mayor Carey Davis and assistant city manager Nita McKay, moved toward liquidating the fire department as part of a cost-cutting measure that would assist the city in its bankruptcy exit plan. The city sought proposals from different entities, the county, the Colton Fire Department, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and the Centerra Group, a Florida-based private company, among them. After San Bernardino County Fire and Centerra did respond with proposals, the city retained Citygate Associates to evaluate their bids.
Citygate delivered to Parker its conclusion that a long term service relationship with the county fire division, given all of the existing regional arrangements and the firefighting assets and facilities currently owned and employed by the city and the county, is the city’s best option. Parker presented Citygate’s findings to the city council.
The item brought before the city council this week did not simply call for contracting with the county fire department for service but for annexing the city into a fire protection district and then seeking from the city’s residents a $142 per year assessment on the city’s approximately 56,000 parcels, which would generate some $7.952 million in revenue under the auspices of the fire protection district. The county would then return, or in the words of critics, “kick back,” the $7.952 million to the city. Taken together with the more than $3 million to be realized by dissolving the department and contracting for the service, the city would achieve “an $11 million contribution to solvency,” according to a report by a city consultant, Management Partners.
The council’s narrow 4-3 endorsement of the plan authorizes Parker to undertake negotiations with the county and county fire district over the terms of the annexation. The council will again need to vote to ratify those terms once they are worked out and presented to the council Likewise, the county board of supervisors would need to sign off on the deal.
Assuming the Local Agency Formation Commission approves the arrangement, the city will need to get past a protest period that will include a ballot mail-in arrangement. If 50 percent plus one of the registered voters in the city object, the dissolution of the city fire department and takeover by the county fire division will not take place. If less than fifty percent plus one but 25 percent or more protest, an election must be held on the question of decommissioning the fire department.
Under a tentative proposal still to be endorsed by the county and county fire chief Mark Hartwig, the ten still functioning city fire stations would remain open, leaving the two fire stations in recent years closed by the city — Station 223 on Medical Center Drive and Station 230 on Arrowhead Avenue — shuttered. The county department would augment those ten stations with service from two county stations on the city’s periphery, in Muscoy and Devore, which the county now operates. The county would employ 41 firefighters on duty during all shifts, an increase of three from the 38 firefighters the city has per shift at present. While there is no guarantee the county will hire all of the firefighters now employed by the city, it is expected that the county will offer those below the rank of battalion chief jobs. The fate of the fire chief and the seven management level employees now employed by the city is even less certain. It has been said that for those battalion chiefs to be taken up by the county, they will need to accept demotions. That has not been officially confirmed.
The management bargaining group representing the seven senior fire department officials excluding the fire chief had prepared a counter-proposal this week but the city council did not preview it, consider it or vote on it. City attorney Gary Saenz said the group’s submission of the plan was not in compliance with the city’s procedures.
If both Twentynine Palms and San Bernardino complete the transitioning of their fire departments to the county, it will increase the number of the county’s 24 incorporated city’s relying upon the county fire division for fire service from seven to nine.
By Mark Gutglueck