Twentynine Palms Water District Filing To Shed Fire Protection Duties

TWENTYNINE PALMS —In reaction to a recommendation by the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission, the Twentynine Palms Water District Board of Directors on June 27 voted to initiate the process of divesting the area’s fire district from the water district.
After the California Department of Forestry ceased providing local fire service in 1958, the Twentynine Palms Water District extended its responsibilities to include fire protection, thus beginning a 54-year-run of overseeing the fire department that has grown now to include two fire stations. But the cost of running the fire department now exceeds the special revenues provided to the water district to maintain the service and in April, residents within the water district’s service area rejected a ballot initiative, Measure H, which would have levied a special fire service assessment on all water district customers.
According to fire chief Jim Thompson, the fire department’s only alternative to balance its books at this point is to shutter either the fire station in downtown Twentynine Palms or the one on Lear Avenue, which provides first response for most of the unincorporated county area within the water department’s jurisdiction.
The Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), which oversees jurisdictional issues throughout the county, in its five-year service review of Twentynine Palms delivered on May 7, 2012 stated that the demands of operating the fire district are now outrunning the water district’s funding ability. The report, authored by LAFCO executive officer Kathleen Rollings-McDonald, assistant executive officer Samuel Martinez and project manager Michael Tuerpe, said LAFCO’s 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.”
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.
Last week, the entire water board, with director Nicholas “Bo” Bourikas not present but voting in absentia in writing, moved to pursue filing an application, at a processing cost of $15,400, with the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission to sever fire service from the district.
The fire department has continued to provide fire protection to all areas within Twentynine Palms’ city limits after the city’s 1987 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.
While the city remains reluctant 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.

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