By David Buckley
When Upland residents worry about the risks associated with annexation into the San Bernardino County Fire District, they need look no further than the tiny resort town of Havasu Lake, which is located on the California side of the Colorado River about 38 miles south of Needles.
The recent history of the town of Havasu Lake’s dealings with San Bernardino County is best characterized as a deceit-filled rip off, replete with intrigue, obfuscation and mismanagement resulting in an unmanned fire station after the local voters enacted a special fire tax. San Bernardino County officials, both from San Bernardino County Fire Department and the First District supervisor’s office floated empty promises of “Increased fire and emergency medical services” which have never been delivered upon. This false promise was repeated ad nauseam during the promulgation of the new special fire tax, while quite the opposite has actually transpired.
In March of 2009, the South Desert Regional Service Zone was receiving $116,000 per year in property tax revenues from local residents, of which there were not too many. It utilized $127,040 per year for salaries, benefits and services/supplies to operate Fire Station No. 118. Of that amount $91,345 funded two paid call firefighters per 10-hour day, which included one paid call fire captain working ten hours a week. It also consumed $35,695 yearly to pay for services/supplies, use of vehicles and indirect overhead consisting of command and support charges.
A special ballot dated March 17, 2009 went out calling for the authorization of a $113.49 per year special tax for, and I quote, “increased fire and emergency medical services, with an annual cost of living increase not to exceed 3 percent as needed, beginning fiscal year 2009-2010 and continuing each year thereafter.” This would, officials said, “finance an increased level of fire operations beginning in fiscal year 2009-10” under the auspices of the newly created Service Zone FP-6 (Havasu Lake) within the South Desert Service Zone. Major elements of the enhanced budget would include, officials said, an $80,000 increase in salaries and benefit, 1 $10,600 increase in non-inventoriable equity, a 3,300 increase in special services, $4,200 for a geographic information system, $2,550 for the distribution of equipment and $24,632 for equipment and service acquisition.
The history of San Bernardino County Fire’s indiscretions at Havasu Lake are rooted in Havasu Lake’s extremely remote location, far from prying eyes and traditionally free from media scrutiny. These factors, combined with unscrupulous San Bernardino County officials, coveting new fountains of money in the middle of nowhere, produced a perfect storm for Havasu Lake. The fire station that was manned and utilized without the special tax is now unmanned most of the time; and the San Bernardino County Fire Department now shamelessly relies on two Chemehuevi paid call Firefighters to provide any service at all.
Havasu Lake in the past enjoyed a top notch dedicated fire shop, staffed with paid call firefighters and a paid call fire captain, but now most often the fire station is unmanned due to efforts by San Bernardino County Fire to eliminate the paid call program.
More insulting yet is that aside from the increase property tax local residents are paying in the form of the assessment dedicated to fire protection, the local fire protection effort, which has now been taken over by the San Bernardino County Fire Department routinely receives substantial donations of supplemental funding from a local 501 (3) c organization, the Havasu Lake Firebelles.
Donna Massey, the recently departed wife of retired fire captain Bill Massey and president of the Havasu Lake Firebelles, raised well over a million dollars for the San Bernardino County Fire Department operation in Havasu Lake over several decades. The donations continue, but the town of Havasu Lake’s once-strong fire department has been allowed to wither on the vine due to mismanagement by San Bernardino County fire command and zero leadership from First District Supervisor Robert Lovingood, the current chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors. In addition to being unable to staff the station and answer questions from the community, the San Bernardino County Fire Department covertly attempted to eliminate the paid call firefighter program, which had been the mainstay of rural fire stations.
Beginning two years before the vote on the special fire tax in Havasu Lake, the county fire division staged a set of false crises, which included then San Bernardino County Fire District Chief Paul Summers announcing his intention to retire. In August 2008, then-fire chief Pat Dennin accepted, several months after having already accepted $43,937.12 from the Firebelles, another $8,500 from the Havasu Lake Firebelles organization to offset the cost of additional paid call firefighters for increased staffing hours at Station 118 in Lake Havasu for an approximate six month period, upping coverage from 10 hours to 12 hours, 7 days a week; and increasing captain staffing two hours a day, from 10 hours to 12 hours, two days a week.
Earlier, in September 2007, a county resident living in Havasu Lake had questioned, during a meeting of the now-defunct Havasu Lake Municipal Advisory Council, how much had been budgeted for Station 118 salaries for Fiscal Year 07/08, how that funding had become depleted in less than three months, where the money had been spent, what entity or division within the county structure was auditing the operations of Station 118 and its budget, whether chief Summers was contemplating the ending of the paid call firefighter system, who was maintaining the station’s equipment and what provisions were being made for training. There were also questions about the relative depth of personnel between the Havasu Lake and Big River and Wonder Valley fire protection operations. There were questions as well about representations that local taxes were being used to pay for a lease on Fire Station 118 when its construction had been defrayed by the Firebelles.
Among Havasu Lake’s claims to fame is that it is also the location of the Chemehuevi Reservation and serves as the seat of the tribal government. It was established that the Chemehuevi Tribe paid $11,700 annually for fire service.
County officials used what they said was a financial crisis besetting the fire operations to push for the special fire tax.
In 2012, three years after the implementation of Havasu Lake’s new Special Fire Tax, several Havasu Lake firefighters contacted a local citizen linked to the media, requested anonymity, and then quickly spilled the beans to the effect that “Our special fire tax dollars were spent outside the special district in violation of Proposition 218… Our special fire tax dollars were misappropriated out of the district and utilized to fund a command salary at the county fire department’s brand new fire station in Hesperia.”
It turned out that in 2010 the county had reduced staffing and services in Havasu Lake, despite the fact that the Havasu Lake residents were paying a special tax for them to be in place, at the ready to fight a fire if one broke out. The $43,937.12 provided to the local firefighting effort almost three years before had gone to purchase a new utility vehicle. By 2015, the local fire department had a brand new utility vehicle with no firefighters to drive it, as well as an ambulance and fireboat, which were also purchased by the Havasu Lake Firebelles.
Havasu Lake’s Station 118 is not the only rural fire station to suffer under the failed leadership of San Bernardino County Fire Department, whose efforts to dismantle the long established paid call firefighter program in San Bernardino County have, according to current San Bernardino County Fire Department sources, caused the reduction of service at, or closure of at least five other rural fire stations, including the fire station in San Antonio Heights.
In a half-hearted effort to save appearances, San Bernardino County Fire has, when opportunity presents itself, caused paid call firefighters from other rural fire stations, including San Antonio Heights, to commute to Havasu Lake, the distances involved in this commute are extraordinary. This situation is reminiscent of the punishment of “Highway Therapy,” as administered by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.
In an interview last year at yet another rural San Bernardino County Fire outpost, the paid call firefighter on duty described the situation as: “The union running amuck, demanding that only professional firefighters, i.e., union members, be employed by San Bernardino County Fire.”
To be fair to the San Bernardino County Fire Department, this same paid call firefighter asserted that Current County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig’s goal of professionalizing the entire county fire department was well intentioned but somewhat misguided and that San Bernardino County fire command lacked the backbone to stand up for the public safety interests of rural San Bernardino County in the face of pressure from the union.
The situation at Havasu Lake remains unresolved, and as of this writing San Bernardino County Fire is still reliant on two dedicated Chemehuevi firefighters, John Perez and Danny Pintor, to stand up and volunteer. Without these two all would be lost at Station 118.
The sad situation of the Havasu Lake special fire tax has also produced a strange result in nearby Needles. When the Needles City Council caved in to demands from First District Supervisor Robert Lovingood and voluntarily surrendered that city’s long-standing local fire authority and allowed Needles to be annexed into the county fire district, the troubled history at Havasu Lake and precluded Needles from joining the nearby fire district. The end result was that instead of joining forces with a fire district 38 miles away, Needles was forced to “annex” to the Helendale Fire Protection Zone 200 miles away!
The citizens of Upland should run from the San Bernardino County Fire Department as one runs from a burning building.
By David Buckley