29 Palms Water District’s Continued Control Of Fire District Untenable, Commission Says

The San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission has recommended that the Twentynine Palms Water District relinquish control of the area’s fire department.
Twenty-nine years before the city of Twentynine Palms incorporated in 1987, the water district extended its responsibilities to include fire protection in 1958 after the California Department of Forestry ceased providing local fire service.
A quarter century after Twentynine Palm’s incorporation, the water district remains an independent agency.
The Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), which oversees jurisdictional issues throughout the county, conducts community service reviews every five years. In a report dated May 7, 2012, LAFCO executive officer Kathleen Rollings-McDonald, assistant executive officer Samuel Martinez and project manager Michael Tuerpe state that the demands of operating the fire district are now outrunning the water district’s funding ability.
According to Rollings-McDonald, Martinez and Tuerpe, their review of the water district’s financial books “identifies a significant deficiency in funding” such that “the water district’s fire operations are unsustainable as presently financed.”
If the water district sheds the fire protection district, according to the report, state law mandates that the city of Twentynine Palms take on the responsibility of providing fire protection within its city limits, and the unincorporated areas now served by the water/fire district boundaries “would be unsustainable as a stand-alone agency,” thus requiring that the portion of the water district outside the city be annexed to the county fire division and its South Desert Service Zone. For the area outside the city, “County Fire would need to form a zone to isolate the special tax revenues generated,” according to Rollings-McDonald, Martinez and Turerpe. That arrangement would require an annual budget and audit.
Within the city’s boundaries, the city would have the option of forming its own fire department to directly provide fire service, or otherwise contract with the county fire division or the California Division of Forestry’s fire division, known as CalFire “for the service level that it can afford,” according to the report. If the city seeks a contract with the county for fire service, the city would have to allow itself to be annexed by the fire division’s South Desert Service Zone for the purpose of fire protection solely. “County Fire would succeed to all of the water district’s assets and liabilities and special tax,” the LAFCO report states. That portion of the water district’s revenues brought in to pay for fire service would be handed over to the county, subject to an annual audit.
Rollings-McDonald, Martinez and Tuerpe said the city could in the alternative seek to annex the water district as a subsidiary district and run the fire department out of the district. That ploy is complicated, however by the consideration that less than 70 percent of the water district’s territory lies within the current Twentynine Palms city limits, so a waiver would be required.
Last month, local voters rejected Measure H, which would have levied a special fire service assessment within the water district’s jurisdiction. According to fire chief Jim Thompson, Measure H’s failure will result in the district shuttering one of its two fire stations

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