In Limbo, 29 Palms Fire Department Down To Five Men To Serve 88 Sq. Miles

(June 14)  TWENTYNINE PALMS — More than a year after the county local agency formation commission recommended that the Twentynine Palms Water District divest itself of the fire department, the water district has yet to relinquish it, and the fire department’s future remains in limbo.
A takeover of the department by the county fire department fell through earlier this year and the department, which boasts seven personnel functioning out of two fire stations to serve a jurisdiction of 88 square miles, is set to be downscaled to five firefighters and one station.
Last month, the most recently drafted version of the department’s 2013-14 budget was presented by fire chief Jim Thompson to the water board. That spending plan earmarks $1,209,525 for department operations from July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014 and will salt away $52,775 in a reserve account. The department, which is funded entirely by a special tax, is slated to receive $1,244,800 in the upcoming fiscal year.
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, 2012 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. Ultimately, however, that takeover has not been consummated.
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 one of the fire stations and other cost-cutting moves which some elements of the community vociferously protested.
At one point, Hartwig proposed reducing the department to three firefighters and one station and utilizing volunteers/paid call personnel to function within the $1.2 million financial model. Eventually, the water board, under increasing pressure from members of the community, rejected the concept of handing the department off to the county, whose unionized firefighters draw higher pay and benefits than the current department’s members.
Twenty-nine years before the city of Twentynine Palms incorporated in 1987, the water district extended its responsibilities to include fire protection after the California Department of Forestry ceased providing local fire service to the area in 1958. When the city incorporated, it did not do so as a full-service municipality, and it left responsibility for fire service to the water district, which likewise remained independent from the city.
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 most of 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 fire tax on properties throughout the service area of the water district.
In April 2012, residents within the water district’s service area were presented with a ballot initiative, Measure H, which would have levied an added special fire service assessment on all water district customers. The voters rejected that initiative. Thompson at that point said that the fire department’s only option in balancing its books was to shutter one of its two fire stations.
That prediction is about to become reality. And two firefighters will also be casualties of the economies that must be imposed. Thompson’s working plan is to consolidate fire operations and maintain five paid personnel — himself as fire chief, two captains and two engineers  — and augment that skeleton crew with three reserve volunteer firefighters daily. The Lear Avenue station will be closed and all operations will be run out of the 1,800-square foot downtown Adobe Road station.
Like last year, all maintenance or capital acquisitions will be deferred, at least until next year. Most of the $1,244,800 in revenue the water district will receive that is earmarked for the fire department will be eaten up by the anticipated $1,209,525 for salaries and fuel and basic operations, leaving $52,775 in reserves, which will eventually be used, Thompson hopes, for maintenance or acquisition at some indefinite point in the future.

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