Effort Under Way To Seek Voter Okay For Twentynine Palms Fire Tax Hike

TWENTYNINE PALMS (March 20)—Twentynine Palms Water District officials are on the verge of resurrecting a tax measure to fund the fire department.
Since 1958, the fire department in 29 Palms has been overseen by the water district. The department has grown to include two fire stations and seven firefighters to cover the 59 square miles within the Twentynine Palms City Limits and the 29 square miles of unincorporated county area that also falls under the water district/fire department’s 88-square mile jurisdiction. The city does not contribute to, participate in or subsidize the fire department’s operational budget.
In 2012, water district voters rejected Measure H, a tax increase proposal, and the water district explored  surrendering authority over the fire department to the county fire department.
That same year, the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission  indicated the water district would need to find augmenting funding for the fire department or relinquish control of it.
The water district and the city of Twentynine Palms worked on a proposal to have the county’s fire division subsume the fire department but that goal was not achieved after county fire chief Mark Hartwig said that in working within the confines of the $1.244 million in available special tax funding for local fire service, he would need to close down one of the fire stations and reduce the department to no more than four firefighters.
So far the water district has maintained control of the fire department but as of last July 1 the district closed out its Lear Avenue Fire Station.  The water district is now leasing the station to Copper Mountain College, which is using the facility to conduct fire science courses.
All of the fire department’s operations are now run out of the Adobe Road Fire Station, known as Station 421, and its paid personnel have been reduced to five. Response times to certain portions of the 88-square mile fire protection jurisdiction have increased.
Twentynine Palms Fire Chief Jim Thompson and Twentynine Palms Water District General Manager Tamara Alaniz have obtained an endorsement from the Twenty Nine Palms Citizen Advisory Committee, chaired by Adam Lunn, to again seek voter approval of an increase to the parcel tax imposed on residents within the water district’s boundaries.
The current parcel tax is $80. Lunn and his cohorts have advised that the district ask their customers to approve a $20.40 per year increase to that assessment on developed property and a $10.20 increase on vacant parcels. The committee has further suggested that the measure authorize the increase for three years and give the district the ability to add a three percent annual inflation adjustment in the years beyond 2018.
Were Twentynine Palms area residents willing to increase their fire tax burden, according to the advisory committee, the Lear Avenue station could be reopened and the fire department reconstituted to its former level, consisting of seven paid personnel and a complement of on-call firefighters.  Local control of the fire department would be guaranteed, according to the panel.
At present, Thompson manages the fire department for the water district, utilizing $1,244,800 in revenue from the special tax to fund operations that cost $1,209,525 annually, while salting away $52,775 in a reserve account.
At one point, county fire chief 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.
The advisory committee has suggested that the community could potentially be convinced to embrace the increased assessments by demonstrating that the reopening of the Lear Avenue facility, known as Station 422, would ensure a needed higher level of service to Twentynine Palms’ Indian Cove and Desert Heights neighborhoods.

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