29 Palms To Consider Augmenting Fire Service

(December 28)   TWENTYNINE PALMS—It is anticipated that early in 2013, the city of Twentynine Palms will make a historic departure from its tradition of entrusting to the Twentynine Palms Water District financial responsibility for and autonomy over the fire department.
For fifty-four years, the Twentynine Palms Water District has overseen the Twentynine Palms Fire Department. In 1958, when the California Department of Forestry ceased providing local fire service, the Twentynine Palms Water District extended its responsibilities to include fire protection. When the city of Twentynine Palms incorporated in 1987, it did not take on authority over the fire department and it has never contributed to, participated in or subsidized the fire department’s operational budget.
Under the arrangement that has been in place since 1958, fire department finances have been held independent of the water district’s water division operational budget, 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 district. That special tax currently generates slightly more than $1.24 million per year.
In 2007, the city and the district began earnest discussion of annexing the fire department to the city, 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.
Developments over the last seven months, however, have created a situation in which city participation in the fire department’s operations, or at least partially defraying the cost of those operations, is now likely.
In April, Twentynine Palms voters rejected the Measure H tax initiative by a substantial margin. Measure H would have levied an $80 to $120 per parcel assessment on customers of the water district to provide enhanced fire protection and emergency medical aid to the community. Needing the endorsement of two-thirds of the voters to pass, Measure H garnered 850 votes of endorsement, or 48.27 percent, and 911 in opposition, or 51.73 percent, during the mail-in balloting concluded on April 17.
The Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), which oversees jurisdictional issues throughout the county, did a five-year service review of Twentynine Palms earlier this year, delivering that report on May 7. According to that report, the demands of operating the fire district have for some time been outrunning the water district’s funding ability such that “the water district’s fire operations are unsustainable as presently financed.”
LAFCO called for the water district to overcome the financial challenges facing the fire department or cede control  to another entity by July 1, 2013. On June 27, with director Nicholas “Bo” Bourikas not present but voting in absentia in writing, the water board moved to file an application with the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission to sever fire service from the district. On July 12, at a joint meeting of the Twentynine Palms Water District, including its legal counsel and staff, Twentynine Palms Fire Chief Jim Thompson, the Twentynine Palms City Council and its legal counsel, county fire chief Mark Hartwig and LAFCO chief executive Kathleen Rollings-McDonald, a decision was made to have the county’s fire department subsume the fire department.
Under the water district’s guidance, the fire department has grown to boast two fire stations, Station 421 on Adobe Road, which provides first response to the 59-square mile incorporated portion of Twentynine Palms and some unincorporated pockets close to town, and Station 422 on Lear Avenue, which is the first logical responder to fire and medical emergencies in the 29-square mile unincorporated, outlying communities of Twentynine Palms, including the Desert Heights area. The department employs seven permanent/professional firefighters, including the fire chief, two fire captains, and four engineers. The department also employs an administrative assistant. The department counts on 30 volunteers, who work one shift per week.
Under the county’s management, however, the fire department would be drastically reduced. Officials have gone back and forth over whether the operation of both existing fire stations will be maintained. There have been differing proposals to close out Fire Station 421  and headquarter the entire department at Station 422; to scale back Station 421’s operations while relying on paid call firefighters; and to keep both stations up and running with what can best be described as skeleton crews.
Crunching numbers and looking at fiscal realities, including the necessity of the department’s employees becoming members of the firefighters union representing San Bernardino County firefighters, who as such will be entitled under contract to hefty salaries and benefits, it appeared that four of the seven firefighters currently with the district would have to be laid off, given the $1.24 million in annual revenue into the district. There was one proposal floated that called for having a fire division consisting of four firefighters, entailing one two-man crew at each fire station.
Immediately upon becoming a creature of county government, the department would have to begin paying into the state Public Employees Retirement System. With three employees, the department could sustain itself with $1.16 million per year. But upon hiring a fourth firefighter, the cost of running the department would jump to $1.3 million, and that assumes that the fourth firefighter would earn no overtime.
Under California Public Employees Retirement System rules and the county’s contract with the firefighters union, firefighters are eligible to retire at the age of 55 and then receive three percent of their highest annual earnings times the number of years they worked with the department. This would include all the years the firefighters were employed by the water district. The county has indicated it would not be willing to cover that portion of the contribution into the California Public Employees Retirement System pertaining to the previous years worked by the three or four firefighters to be hired by the county upon takeover of the district. That contribution or “liability” of the water district would be at least $700,000 for three firefighters and $940,000 for four firefighters.
At one point, Hartwig proposed having the newly-constituted Twentynine Palms Fire Department consist of one chief and one firefighter/paramedic at Station 421 in downtown Twentynine Palms and two firefighters/paramedics at Station 422 on Lear Avenue, with a total operating budget of  $1 million to $1.3 million annually.
Subsequently, after Hartwig spoke in depth with current fire chief Thompson and made a consideration of various staffing scenarios, it was determined that the most likely form the department would take would be three firefighters composing one engine company which would operate out of one station, most likely the one on Lear Avenue.
More recently, Hartwig indicated a two-station department could be provided for $1.2 million per year, with the Adobe Road facility, Station 421, being  staffed by a single professional fire captain, a “limited term” firefighter/paramedic and one “limited term” firefighter, and the Lear Avenue Station, No. 422, being manned by paid-call firefighters. The department would continue to rely upon its corps of volunteers/paid call firefighters, who are provided with training and equipment, including a pager that is used to summon them when an emergency so dictates. They are paid up to $10 an hour for their service but receive no benefits and no guaranteed minimum.
By utilizing volunteers/paid call personnel and the three professional firefighters, Hartwig said he could make do with $1.24 million per year and still “balance the books.”
While no previous city council has consented to augmenting the fire department, city officials are now carefully considering the consequences of having the water district lose  control over the fire department to the county. At present, the water district receives  $1,241,000 in revenue from the special fire tax. Running the fire department as it is currently constituted incurs annual expenditures of $1,480,202. Essentially, because the water district is $239,000 short in the revenue it needs to run a seven-man department, it is on the brink of reducing itself to a three-man department.
For approximately $80,000 to $85,000 per year, the city could subsidize the fire department such that it could remain under the control of the water district as a five-man fire department. For $165,000 to $175,000 per year, the city could preserve the fire department as a six-man operation yet under the control of the water district. For $239,000 per year, the city could preserve the fire department in its current configuration.
On November 6, Cora Heiser replaced John Cole on the city council. She has indicated her support for shoring up the fire department. Recent public statements by councilman Jim Harris indicated he would provide a second solid vote for maintaining local control over the fire department and keeping  its current staffing level.
There has been discussion of a joint public meeting between the water district’s board of directors and the city council in January, but at press time this week, no date had been set. Meanwhile, the water district, which voted to begin the jurisdiction transfer process last summer, has yet to put up the $15,400 processing fee that has to be provided to LAFCO to initiate those proceedings. LAFCO chief executive officer Kathleen Rollings-McDonald earlier indicated that the application for the transfer needed to be initiated by last October 1 to ensure a timely transition by next July 1. It now appears that the district will miss that transfer date. Rollings-McDonald told the Sentinel earlier this month it was her understanding that the water district was suspending the transfer application.
Indications are the transfer effort will be withdrawn entirely, as city officials cast about for some solution to the fire department’s funding dilemma.

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