29 Palms Water District Rethinking Letting County Absorb Fire Deparment

(December 14)   TWENTYNINE PALMS—Faced with what has been characterized as “a total financial absurdity” imposed on it by the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission, the Twenty Nine Palms Water District is now balking at the demand that it divest itself of the Twentynine Palms 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.
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 firefighting personnel, 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.
The fire department’s service area is not coterminous with the 29 Palms city limits. The city does not contribute to, participate in or subsidize 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.
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 have for some time been 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. 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 Rollings-McDonald, a decision was made to have the county’s fire department subsume the fire department.
Since that time, 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 entirely 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.
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.
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.
One proposal briefly looked at was laying off three firefighters upon the county takeover, and running the department as a two-engine, two-station department for one year, and transitioning to a three-member, one-engine department as of July 1, 2014.
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.”
Over the last several months, the reality of what is about to occur has begun to penetrate city officials, water district officials and the public at large. As the fire department is currently being operated, the water district anticipates revenues throughout fiscal 2012-13 of $1,241,000 and expenditures running to $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.
On November 28, the water district directors, after hearing from the district’s financial consultant Wayne Jones, voted unanimously to suspend the application to divest itself of the fire department.
On December 19, the water board will revisit the issue of keeping the fire district within its jurisdiction.
One element in the board’s thinking process is the changed political circumstance on the city council. On November 6, Cora Heiser was elected, displacing John Cole on the city council. To date, the city council has refused to consider providing any sort of augmentation funding to the water district to support fire department operations. 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.
At this point, however, some are hopeful and water board president Philip Cisneros has hinted, city officials may be amenable to finding the $239,000 needed to keep the level of staffing in the Twentynine Palms Fire Department intact.
Rollings-McDonald this week told the Sentinel that the water district has not initiated the process with LAFCO to arrange for divesting itself of the fire department. That filing would have cost the district $15,400, and should have been initiated by October 1, she said, to ensure that the takeover could be effectuated by the start of the 2013-14 fiscal year on July 1.
“There  has been no submission to LAFCO regarding a proposal to change over fire services,” Rollings-McDonald said. “ My understanding was that at the last official meeting of the water board there was a decision to suspend the preparation of that application because there is a question about how the county fire department would respond to the takeover, particularly with the changing of manpower at the Lear Avenue Station. At LAFCO we have received nothing relating to that.  I don’t know why they are backing off. I just know there was concern regarding staffing at the Lear Avenue Station. I do not know what the county has proposed. We are not privy to that “
Rollings-McDonald said the district could not logically defy the LAFCO mandate that the district rid itself of the financial burden of the fire department.
“Their finances won’t change,” Rollings-McDonald said. “The special tax is a flat rate. It does not have an inflation factor. The only fluctuation is what comes when customers fail to pay. The district cannot use money from water operations to subsidize fire protection.  I do not know how they can continue run a deficit. They can’t increase their revenues. The only way would be for them to borrow money, but  how can they borrow if they have no money to pay it back? If the department adjusts operation at the Lear Station to live within its means, that is well and good. But they have to live within their means because they don’t have the discretionary funds to use. I do not know what they intend to do and how they intend to do it.”

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