Needles Mulls Four Options For Fire Protection Service

(April 29) The daunting financial burden of providing fire protection services in small outlying rural communities of the 20,105 square mile San Bernardino County is a matter that the city of Needles is being forced to contend with before the new fiscal year commences on July 1. The city with a population of 4,844 at the county’s extreme east end on the banks of the Colorado River has roughly 1,000 owner occupied residences. State law and its own charter mandate the city to provide fire services within its boundaries. Since 2004, Needles has met that requirement by contracting with the San Bernardino County Fire Department (SBCFD).
Given increasing salaries, retirement benefits and fire station construction costs, however, the county of San Bernardino will increase its price on a renewed contract by over 100 percent, going from a current $600,000 to a new price tag of $1,224.902.
“After we saw the offer and picked ourselves up off the floor, we realized that we better act quickly and either come up with the money or another alternative,” Needles City Manager Rick Daniels said.
The SBCFD provided an alternative proposed contract with reduced services for $612,451 as a one-time offer provided that the city agrees to work toward annexing into the county’s current fire protection service district through the Local Area Formation Commission (LAFCO).   Annexation to the current county fire district would be preceded by a notification to the property owners and would need to be approved by the voters if 20 percent to 50 percent of the property owners object. If there is no objection, or if less than 20 percent  object, then the LAFCO decision becomes final.
The SBCFD states that the county will absorb administrative costs after annexation, thus reducing the taxation apportionment to $582,024 of the city’s total current property tax base of $800,000. After annexation, future apportionment to the fire district would continue as a fixed percentage assigned through LAFCO.   If property values increase, then the fire district would benefit from that increased revenue from the difference in the taxed value. On the other hand, if property values stay the same or decrease, then the county would be obligated to accept the devaluation and decrease in revenue.
Daniels interjected that Needles has not seen a significant increase in property values in recent years and with a shrug appeared skeptical that there would be in the future. During this discussion, there was no mention made by the manager of a proposed “inland port” (truck stop), casino and other proposed developments along historic Route 66 that might serve to increase the tax base.
Daniels offered several alternative scenarios that the city council could potentially investigate, including obtaining fire services from another provider such as the fire department on the Arizona side of the Colorado River, or a private provider,  also stating the drawbacks of each. Daniels addressed the option of returning to the pre-2004 state of affairs, when the city operated its own fire department with its own fire chief, paid call firefighters, and volunteers. Daniels asserted that this operation would need to be “perfectly” in place by July 1 when the county contract ends.
Councilman Tom Darcy did not see a city owned fire department as a viable option and asserted that working with the county was the only realistic alternative. Vice mayor Jeff Williams, agreed that the city needed to work with the county.
Councilman Shawn Gudmundson, however, did not dismiss the idea of a locally controlled fire department and demonstrated a deep concern with regard to the availability of a fire truck and crew when needed in the city, should the county crew be called out to a remote desert area. His concerns seemed to be echoed by Councilwoman Louise Evans who offered to the city manager a copy of Barstow’s current system.
“I see this as a big shake down,” said Needles resident Ruth Musser-Lopez who owns a small rental house business in Needles and is an occasional columnist with the Sentinel. “I went home and ran the numbers Rick didn’t mention that county fire wants a whopping 73% of our property tax revenue base. That is a huge percentage for any town, especially if the revenue base expands as it most certainly will with the city’s effort to double its population.   The county is building a 3 million dollar fire station in town and now is basically giving Needles an ultimatum–either annex into the county controlled fire district or the county is going to hike and double the price of Needles’ contract.
“Personally,” she continued, “I haven’t been too impressed with what the county has offered in the way of fire suppression services. What I have experienced is that by the time they arrive at a fire and find the nearest hydrant, they are basically in the ‘keep it from spreading to the next house’ mode. We have our own firehouse now and I like the idea of keeping it and a local fire department partly comprised of volunteers who know the community and know how to put out city fires, including electrical fires at downed wires during or after a windstorm and such. We need more than sage and range fire suppression—those skills are different than the skills and training needed for city situations. We now have and should have our own fire truck here, available at all times to serve our own community and not yanked off to put out fires 30 miles or more away leaving us vulnerable.”

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