County Sending Mixed Signals On Twentynine Palms Fire Station Closure

(November 23)   County officials have vacillated in recent weeks with regard to whether they will keep both of the Twentynine Palms area fire stations operating.
Under the gun to divest itself of the fire department, the Twentynine Palms Water Agency is in the process of handing both the financial responsibility for, and the operational authority over, its fire protection division to the San Bernardino County 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 grew 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 fire department’s service area is thus 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, 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 what was dubbed the 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 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. 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 $1.2 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.
In a posting to the on-line version of the Desert Trail, Twentynine Palms only newspaper, former Twentynine Palms fire chief Greg Moore was critical of the Local Agency Formation Commission’s action to force the water district to divest itself of the fire department and was likewise critical of the city for not leaping into the breach to assume responsibility for the department.
Moore said he “hated” to see the county fire department merger and decried the “loss of a fire station to support the California Public Employees Retirement System costs.” He said the change being foisted on the community by outside elements “degrades the safety of people. The loss of a station is not just about fire protection. Firefighters provide emergency medical assistance. Closing a station means a delay in providing critical care. I do not understand why the city would not bring the fire department on as a public service. I pitched this idea to the city council members when I was chief and most seemed in favor of it.”
Hartwig suggested a four firefighter force was desirable because the department could then function as a two-engine company, two-fire station department.
One proposal briefly looked at was laying off just 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.
On November 13, Hartwig came to Twentynine Palms and told the city council and members of the public present that a two-station department could be provided for $1.2 million per year.
According to Hartwig, the Adobe Road facility, Station 421 could remain open, staffed by a single professional fire captain, a “limited term” firefighter/paramedic and one “limited term” firefighter. The Lear Avenue Station, No. 422, would remain open as well, but be manned by paid-call firefighters, he said. The department would continue to rely upon its corps of volunteers/paid call firefighters. Those volunteers 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 $1.2 million per year and still “balance the books.”
The county is cutting the water district no slack, with the Local Agency Formation Commission charging $15,400 to process the fire department divestment application. That application is still pending, contingent upon a determination that the available special tax revenue will provide enough funding to cover the county fire department’s costs in assuming the responsibility of running the Twentynine Palms department.
Current fire chief Jim Thompson assailed Twentynine Palms municipal officials for their unwillingness to contribute financially toward the operation of the department. He charged the city council with being stingy with the its 26 percent general levy taxes and said it was shameful that Twentynine Palms is the only one of the county’s 24 incorporated cities to not be funding at least in part its fire department.
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.
City council members in response implied that Thompson had erred repeatedly during his nine years as head of the department. They said he  purchased at a cost of $250,000 a ladder truck in 2011 that was not needed, given that all of the city’s high rise buildings are equipped with fire sprinklers.  They also charged Thompson with allowing salary costs in the district to get out of control.
Thompson retorted that the firefighters under his command are among the lowest paid and most overworked firefighters in the county, who put in 72-hour shifts, which are 16 hours beyond the industry standard.

Leave a Reply