County Fire To Inherit 29 Palms Fire Department

(July 20) TWENTYNINE PALMS — Fifty-four years after it assumed responsibility for fire protection in this desert community, the Twentynine Palms Water District has elected to spin the Twentynine Palms Fire Department off to the  San Bernardino County Fire Division.
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, the city did not create its own fire department and the water district’s fire department subdivision has continued to provide fire protection to all areas within Twentynine Palms’ city limits. The Twentynine Palms Fire Department now counts among its capital possessions two fire stations, Station 421 in downtown Twentynine Palms and Station 422 in the unincorporated Desert Heights area. The fire department’s service area is not coterminous with the 29 Palms City Limits, and in addition to providing fire protection service to the 59-square-mile city also serves 29 square miles of the surrounding unincorporated county area.
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 district.
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.
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 hand the downtown station over 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.
On June 27, with director Nicholas “Bo” Bourikas not present but voting in absentia in writing, the water board 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. Undetermined at that time was whether the county or the California Division of Forestry and Fire Protection, the entity known as Cal Fire which relinquished firefighting responsibility in the area more than five decades ago, would be the successor agency.
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.
Assessing operational costs for the department, Hartwig said the county could support one chief and one firefighter/paramedic at Station 421 in downtown Twentynine Palms and two firefighters/paramedics at Station 422 on Lear Avenue in the unincorporated Desert Heights area for $1 million to $1.3 million annually.
At present, the department consists of seven permanent/professional firefighting personnel: the fire chief, two fire captains, and four engineers. The department also employs an administrative assistant. The department boasts 30 volunteers, who work one shift per week.
The proposal is for the county’s fire division to annex the 87 square miles of the fire protection area currently under the jurisdiction of the water district.
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. Without some further infusion of revenue into the fire service’s budget, with the continuation of current staffing and operational levels, by the end of the 2013-14 fiscal year all of the fire division’s funds, operational and reserve, will be exhausted.
LAFCO will charge the water district $15,400 to process its divestment application, which will include the conducting of public hearings. The submission of the final application together with all necessary documentation is to be made by October 1. Hearings will be held thereafter.

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