No Clear Consensus On 29 Palms Fire Merger

TWENTYNINE PALMS—A specially called meeting of the Twentynine Palms City Council on January 14 did not resolve the issues relating to the fate of the fire department.
According to the Local Agency Formation Commission, the Twentynine Palms Water District, which has since 1958 overseen the fire department, can no longer afford to carry that financial burden. Fire department operations are defrayed entirely by a special parcel tax that  generates $1.24 million per year. Currently, the seven-man, two-station fire department costs $1.48 million to run and carries with it a future unfunded liability in the form of pensions for its firefighters when they retire. Last year, voters turned thumbs down on an increase in the fire service per parcel tax.
The water district voted last summer to have the county’s fire division take over the fire department’s operations, but missed an October 1 deadline to have the Local Agency Formation Commission initiate the processing of that merger. The water board’s members along with members of the community grew concerned that county fire chief Mark Hartwig‘s plan to reduce the department to a one-station, three-firefighter operation would be inadequate for the city and its outlying area.
Pressure has mounted on the city, which has historically made no contribution to the operation of the fire department, which serves the 59-square miles within the Twentynine Palms City Limits and 29 square miles of unincorporated county property around the city, to subsidize the water district or takeover the district.
City manager Richard Warne, in his powerpoint presentation to the city council on Monday evening, made clear his recommendation that the city not take up the burden of operating the fire department.
The fire department is “insolvent,” Warne said. “The city cannot take on the fire department’s open-ended responsibilities.”
Warne said Twentynine Palms and government entities throughout California are confronted with a “new reality” of uncertain and diminishing revenue. “The water district has not recognized this new world and/or made adjustments to the new reality. As a result, the Twentynine Palms Fire Department is insolvent today due to decisions made by the firefighters union, fire chief, water district finance director and water district board. They all share responsibility for the current situation. The fire department’s controllable expenditures have significantly exceeded inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and they have acquired huge unfunded firefighter pension obligations and post-employment retiree benefit obligations that appear to be impossible to pay. In this respect they are like many governments in California facing bankruptcy.”
Warne said that “after years of deficit spending and nine months after the failure of the ballot measure, the fire chief and the water district board still have no plan to bring expenditures into line with revenues. The fire department cash position is deteriorating each day due to deficit spending, while the unfunded firefighter pension obligations are growing each day.”
Warne’s bottom line recommendation was to have the water district proceed with turning the fire department over to the county.
“The county fire department proposal provides the city a higher level of service than is currently provided by the Twentynine Palms Fire Department and more efficiently directs limited financial resources,” Warne said. “More importantly, the county fire department proposal keeps expenditures within revenues.”
Warne’s hands-off approach was not embraced by several people in attendance. A few used Warne’s citation of a $12 million municipal reserve fund to suggest that the city could afford to effectuate the takeover.
Among those who lobbied the city to keep local control over the fire department was Paul Regner, “Isn’t looking after the residents and citizens of Twentynine Palms our primary responsibility?” Regner asked. “Do we really want to farm that out to the county? What’s the point of being a city if we don’t  provide these kinds of basic preventive and security services for our residents? We have the ability to sort this out and make it work for our city. I think maintaining control of the fire department is essential in that.”
City attorney Patrick Munoz said the city could opt to take over just that portion of the fire department function within its city limits or more energetically take on the department’s current service area. Arrangements would have to be made to pass the special fire department service tax to the city, he said. Munoz also said the city could expedite the LAFCO application for the county fire district to annex the city and unincorporated areas for the purpose of providing fire protection. And, he said, a joint powers authority could be created between the city and water district to run the fire department.
In response to suggestions that the county should help subsidize the department because a large portion of the department’s service area lies in the unincorporated county area, Hartwig said declining revenues have already resulted in “service delivery cuts” to the county’s service areas. He also said county firefighters had made “concessions” on salaries and benefits. Councilwoman Cora Heiser inquired about the relative pay provided to the county’s firefighters and the firefighters currently employed by the Twentynine Palms Fire Department. She was told that Twentynine Palms firefighters average about $14.05 per hour and county firefighters are paid about twice that.
The county’s Local Agency Formation Commission executive director, Kathleen Rollings-McDonald, said that the incorporated portion of Twentynine Palms generated enough revenue to sustain the fire station servicing the city but that the sparsely populated county area did not provide enough in the way of special tax proceeds to support the fire station outside of town.
Councilman Daniel Mintz said, “City money being spent outside the city is a complex issue.”
Mayor Joe Klink said, “It is a very difficult decision to make. I ask the four council members and myself to go home and think about what was said and come back to our first meeting in February with hopefully a decision we can make if the water district cannot make a decision on how it will handle it.”

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