29 Palms Water District Given One Year To Shed Fire Department

TWENTYNINE PALMS — The head of the county agency overseeing jurisdictional issues has given indication that the Twentynine Palms Water District’s 54-year run operating the Twentynine Palms Fire Department will very likely end at the beginning of the 2013-14 fiscal year.
Twenty-nine years before the city of Twentynine Palms incorporated in 1987, the water district extended its responsibilities to include fire protection after the California Department of Forestry ceased providing local fire service in 1958.
A quarter century after Twentynine Palm’s incorporation, the water district remains an independent agency. It does not appear that will be the case much longer.
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 stated 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.”
While the fire department has been providing fire protection to all areas within Twentynine Palms’ city limits since the city’s incorporation, the city does not contribute to, participate in or subsidize the fire department’s operational budget. Theoretically, fire department finances are independent of the water district, with water rates totally devoted to the provision of water to customers. Fire department operations are defrayed entirely by a special tax on properties throughout the service area of the department.
The water district’s boundaries and the city limits are not coterminous, as the water district serves areas outside the city as well as within it.
In 2007, the city and the district began earnest discussion of annexing the fire department to the city, and formed a Joint Agency Fire Department Committee to look into the matter. On June 9, 2009, then-city manager Michael Tree told the council that if the transfer were to be made it would be best to do it totally and in one fell swoop rather than in stages. But because of complications with regard to the authority for the special tax and the formula for the distribution of tax revenues, as well as the discrepancy between the city limits and the district’s service area, the city elected to forego the takeover.
In April, residents within the water district’s service area were presented with a ballot initiative, Measure H, which would have levied a special fire service assessment on all water district customers. The voters rejected that initiative. The fire department’s only alternative to balance its books at this point, according to fire chief Jim Thompson, is to shutter one of its two fire stations, either the one in downtown Twentynine Palms or the one on Lear Avenue which provides first response for most of the unincorporated county area within the department’s jurisdiction.
Rollings-McDonald on May 24 told the water district’s board members that the district would have to overcome the financial challenges facing the fire department, or cede control of the department to another entity by July 1, 2013. She said the water district could either on its own spin the downtown station off to the city of Twentynine Palms and the Lear Avenue station to the county fire division and thereby surrender the special tax to both of those entities or in the alternative invite the county fire division to expand its sphere of influence and annex the water district’s territory for the purpose of providing fire service, complete with an arrangement to have the county inherit the special tax.
While the city does not seem inclined to annex the fire department in total, if forced to take on the downtown station it could employ its own firefighters to man it or contract with the county or the California Division of Forestry, also known as Cal Fire.
Unless some windfall provides the water district with the necessary funding to keep the fire department, the district will have to undertake at its own expense drafting a transference plan, obtaining public input on the plan as well as feedback from other agencies to be involved or impacted, hold public hearings including one before LAFCO, and apply with LAFCO, at a minimum price of $15,400, to process its application for transferring jurisdiction

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