29 Palms Fire Department At Crossroads As City Mulls Funding Options

(June 12)  TWENTYNINE PALMS—A consensus that would unite the Twentynine Palms Water District and  Twentynine Palms municipal officials over financially sustaining the fire department or possibly paving the way for a city takeover of its functions continues to elude the community.
Advocates for the department nevertheless remain committed to forging an alliance of local agencies that will allow for the modernization and expansion of the department.
Since 1958, the fire department in 29 Palms has been overseen by the water district. The department grew to include two fire stations and seven firefighters to cover the 55 square miles within the Twentynine Palms City Limits and the 33 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, which is infused entirely by a special tax on landowners within the fire department’s service area.
For some, the gradual growth of the local population over the decades, the incorporation of the city in 1987 and the continuing fire hazards and need for modernization of the department’s first response medical care capability seemed to be an impetus for the city itself to assume from the Twentynine Palms Water District authority over the fire department.
Over the years, there had been suggestions to that effect, leading to some preliminary discussions, the most serious of which took place in 2007, when 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 that sustains the fire department 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.
Efforts to beef up the fire department in a way that was independent of the city were made. In 2012, for example, a ballot initiative, Measure H, was offered to the voters for approval. Measure H would have increased the special tax customers of the Twentynine Palms Water District pay from the current $80 per unit to $120 per unit with an additional $6 per year increase for the next 10 years to provide enhanced fire protection and emergency medical aid to the community. Voters nixed the initiative, with 850 votes of endorsement, or 48.27 percent, and 911 in opposition, or 51.73 percent, during the mail-in balloting concluded on April 17, 2012, in which 1,761 voters, or 32.93 percent of the 5,421 eligible to participate, returned ballots.
Shortly thereafter, the community was given a wakeup call by the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission, 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 Local Agency Formation Commission (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 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 department’s downtown station over to the city of Twentynine Palms and the Lear Avenue station in the unincorporated county area 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.
Consequently, the water district board acceded to cooperating with the county for subsuming the fire department. Before that takeover was effectuated, however, San Bernardino County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig made an analysis of likely staffing levels for the department were it to move under his ultimate command. He proposed  reconstituting the seven member Twentynine Palms Fire Department into a four-member force, consisting of one captain 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. Hartwig considered several other staffing scenarios, eventually determining that the most likely form the department would take would be one captain and two limited-term firefighters composing one engine company which would operate out of one station, most likely the one in town.
The water district board balked at the concept of not only surrendering local control over the department but seeing it gutted as well. The water board, defying Rollings-McDonald’s direction that the water district give up control over the fire department by July 1, 2013, elected against allowing the county takeover to proceed.
Instead, the water district board directed Thompson to utilize its annual anticipated revenues of $1,241,000 and operate within those fiscal parameters.
In fitting his operations within that paradigm, Thompson last year was forced to shut down the Lear Street station and consolidate all operations to serve the entire 88 square mile district out of the downtown Twentynine Palms Fire Station.
Meanwhile, at Twentynine Palms City Hall, officials proved reluctant to take on any more responsibility than is already the city’s purview. Former city manager Richard Warne resisted calls to have the city commit any of its resources to assist in fire department operations or contemplate expanding the city’s services to included a takeover of the department. In January 2013, Warne gave an unequivocal recommendation against the city taking up the financial burden of operating the fire department, calling the fire department “insolvent,” while warning the city council, “The city cannot take on the fire department’s open-ended responsibilities.”
The city, Warne said, was constrained by the “new reality” of   uncertain and diminishing revenue available to Twentynine Palms and government entities throughout California. Inflation and labor costs were making operation of the fire department too expensive, Warne said, while criticizing Thomposn and the water board for having “no plan to bring expenditures into line with revenues.”
In November 2012, Cora Heiser had been elected to the city council, displacing John Cole, after a campaign in which she repeatedly stated that city participation in the revamping of the fire department was part of her political agenda. Some of her remarks were interpreted to indicate that she was favorably disposed to a municipal takeover of the fire department altogether.
Warne’s January 2013 assessment, however, foreclosed, at least temporarily, further talk of a city takeover of the fire department.
Five months after Heiser was sworn into office and three months after Warne’s castigation of the water district’s financial management of the fire department, the city council in April 2013 dismissed Warne as city manager, a move seen in some quarters as one that opened the way for city involvement in the funding and perhaps operation of the fire department. A full year elapsed however, with no substantive action in that direction. Late this spring, in response to community activism and statements made by the water district’s directors which called into question the city’s continuing reluctance to pitch in with regard to defraying the cost of fire department operations, councilman Jim Harris said the city had not taken up the issue because no specific request for assistance had ever been formally made by the water district.
Harris implied with this statement that the city council would seriously entertain working with the water district to ensure the fire department is provided with adequate means to look after its public safety function.
Water district board members took this as their cue to seek a formal dialogue with the city, i.e., an open public meeting,  where just such an eventuality could be discussed.
The night before the water board’s May 28 meeting, the Twentynine Palms City Council took up the issue of a joint city council/water district public hearing related to fire department operations. Councilman Jay Corbin indicated reluctance to begin any form of public dialogue with the water district until the city is given an exhaustive profile on the water district’s financial condition as pertains to fire department operations. Specifically, Corbin said he wanted to know what economies the water district has imposed upon the fire department since the failure of Measure H in 2012.  Corbin said he wanted the district to outline how it intends to use any money the city would supply to the district. Moreover, Corbin said he wanted to know if the money would be used for covering the department’s current operational shortfalls. If so, he said, he wanted the district to specify how it proposes to make up for continuing shortfalls in future years. Corbin also said he wanted the water district to spell out if the city would have control over fire department spending if city money were made available to the district.
Corbin’s questions were augmented by one from councilman Joel Klink, who wanted to know whether the water district is still collecting the special fire tax from the Desert Heights area even though the fire station is closed.
At issue is the share of the general property tax levy both the city in its 55 square mile jurisdiction and the county in the 33 square mile portion of the water district in which it has jurisdiction receive.  Citizens have been calling upon the city to participate in the financial sustenance of the fire department based upon at least two considerations. One is that the city of Twentynine Palms has the most favorable arrangement of all of the county’s 24 cities for the pass-through of property tax revenue – 26 percent. Property tax pass-throughs vary city to city in San Bernardino County, with some cities receiving as little as 7 percent of the property tax collected. The second issue is the consideration that of the county’s 24 cities, 23 of them, i.e., all except Twentynine Palms, participate directly in some or all of the financing of their respective fire departments’ operations.
Corbin was able to delay the joint meeting between the city council and the water district board that many were anticipating could take place as early as the middle of this month when on May 27 he convinced council members Klink and Heiser to support his motion to postpone the joint meeting until the district provided answers to the questions he and Klink had posed.
Members of the water board took umbrage at the delay, with several expressing what ranged from disappointment to anger to outrage to disgust at the  council’s unwillingness to initiate what they consider a long overdue dialogue between the city and  the water district.
While Harris and Mayor Daniel Mintz were amenable to facilitating a joint meeting, some members of the community were taken aback by Heiser having sided with Corbin and Klink in insisting upon preset conditions for the powwow.
Two weeks later in a free-ranging conversation with the Sentinel, fire chief Jim Thompson struck a diplomatic tone in assessing the viability of the city and district coming together to advance the effectiveness of the agency he heads and ensure its future viability.
“I believe this meeting will eventually happen,” he said. “I think it’s just going to take a couple more weeks. Obviously, the water board directors are willing to sit down in a joint meeting. It is getting the council to agree to that sit down that is required. Both sides represent the same citizens, so there is a common interest there.”
Thompson indicated part of the reluctance on the city’s part logically derives from the consideration that the water district/fire department service boundaries are not coterminous with the Twentynine Palms city limits. He acknowledged that city officials had a legitimate concern about preventing city money from being utilized in that part of the district beyond the city limits. He hinted that once the dialogue begins, efforts to get the county to make a similar contribution as the city to the fire department’s operations could be undertaken as well.
The department boasts two fire stations, its headquarters, Station 421 located at 6560 Adobe Road  in the city, and Station 422, located at 3834 Lear Ave. in the unincorporated county community of Desert Heights.
Previously, the each station was staffed 24-hours a day by a three-person engine company consisting of a paid company officer and two volunteer reserve firefighters. Last year, the Lear station was shuttered and now all fire department operations are run out of the Adobe station. The professional personnel in the department are now limited to Thompson, captain Matt Helmkamp, captain Robert Marquez, engineer Tim Cole, and engineer Lee Martin. The district also has a single person clerical staff position that has been vacant through attrition since March 2013. These are augmented by 28 reserve/volunteer firefighters, all of whom have attended a fire academy. Four of those are local volunteers. The others are aspiring firefighters from more distant areas in San Bernardino County, or Los Angeles, Orange or Riverside counties. Each serves a one-day 24 hour shift per week in Twentynine Palms. The 24 who do not reside in or near Twentynine Palms return to their distant abodes upon the conclusion of their shifts. Thompson said the assistance being sought from the city of Twentynine Palms would be utilized only within the city and for operations relating to fire protection and emergency medical response within the 55 square mile confines of Twentynine Palms.
“We won’t be opening the Desert Heights station until we get the ballot measure passed and increase the fire tax,” he said. “What we want is to get together with the city and at least start a conversation about fire protection. The Adobe fire station was built 44 years ago and the living quarters  has not been upgraded. Legally, the water district has responsibility for the fire department. Legally, the city is not responsible for maintaining the fire department. But cities have an ethical and moral responsibility to ensure public safety. In the case of Twentynine Palms, it is a confirmed fact that you have a city that is getting a higher percentage of the general tax levy than any other city in the county. It is also the only city in the county where none of that general tax levy or any city general funds go to fire protection. To be fair, in the county area, Desert Heights, no portion of the general tax levy goes toward fire department operations either. The county receives a good percentage of that tax levy. So there is an issue there where the city rightfully would want to make sure the county is included in this discussion. We would like that, too.”
Thompson continued, “When you put all those financials together, you have to ask, ‘Why did this occur? How is it that they could just shortchange the fire department this way?’ I think the likely answer is this was an unintended consequence of Proposition 13. At this point everyone is reluctant to take on something that happened in 1978, but the way I look at it is, why not try to fix that problem now so we’re not dealing with it for the next 30 plus years.”
Looking down the road, Thompson said making a case to those living within the district that the public safety program the fire department provides merits augmentation through an assessment regime will be a linchpin in ensuring the fire department’s viability. He said that in “two to three years” the department will need to replace its quick attack 250 gallon tank primary response vehicle and in “five to seven years it is going to be time to look at another engine if we don’t want to get too behind the curve on our replacement cycle. Today we don’t have money to put into an apparatus reserve.”
He bristled at the suggestion that the fire department was being profligate with the funding entrusted to it. “Show me another fire department in California that has 24-hour daily staffing of five  that runs on $1.2 million a year,” he said. “That isn’t payroll. That is payroll and operations, electricity, equipment, fuel, all costs.”
The Sentinel has learned that water district president Sam Moore is lobbying Mayor Daniel Mintz to use his influence with the council to convince it to expedite the aforementioned joint meeting and resurrect the Joint Agency Fire Department Committee.

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