29 Palms Water District On Course To Hand Off Fire Department To County

TWENTYNINE PALMS—(June 12) In a move widely perceived as a signal that the operation of the Twentynine Palms Fire Department will be turned over to the San Bernardino County Fire District, the Twentynine Palms Water District Board of Directors this week called for the creation of an ad-hoc committee to consider the fire department’s fate.
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.
The department grew to include two fire stations and seven firefighters to cover the fire department’s service area. At present, the fire department functions using $1,244,800 in revenue from the special tax imposed on residents and businesses within the fire department/fire district service area. Current fire chief Jim Thompson has pared operations such that the department is run out of a single fire station, employing only himself and four other paid firefighters, functioning within the parameters of a budget that allows for $1,209,525 in annual expenditures, while salting away $52,775 in a reserve account. The department’s five paid firefighters 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.
The city of Twentynine Palms in the past has not been willing to take on operational and financial responsibility for the fire department. An effort to beef up the fire department in a way that was independent of the city was made in 2012, when 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, the commission’s staff 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 executive officer Kathleen Rollings-McDonald, assistant executive officer Samuel Martinez and project manager Michael Tuerpe, said the district suffered from “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. That deadline passed, however, without any change, as an overture by the county fire department functioning within the available $1.244 million annual funding for the department would have entailed a reduction of the paid firefighting force to three from the current five. The water board has sought to induce, cajole, shame, provoke or otherwise motivate the city of Twentynine Palms to take over directly or share in the operation of the fire department. Only councilwoman Cora Heiser has proven supportive of such a move, as the remainder of the city council has expressed reluctance to assume such a financial liability.
This week, in what was either a last ditch effort to get the city to sign on to sharing responsibility for the fire department with the water district or otherwise bring the county in to run the fire department, the water district board called for the creation of an ad-hoc committee consisting of two water board members and two city council members to study the options remaining for continuing the operation of the fire department.
A clear stumbling block to the city stepping into the situation all along has been the attitude of the string of city managers the city of Twentynine Palms has had over the last half decade. Richard Warne was adamant that the city could not sustain the financial burden of running the fire department. His follow-on, Joe Guzzetta, while open to discussions of having the city bring the fire department in-house, never actuated such a plan. Recently appointed city manager Frank Luckino, constrained to working within a very tight budget, does not have the luxury of expanding the footprint of city government in a way that will demand more tax money. And though the $1.244 million in special tax revenue earmarked for the fire department would be passed along to the city, the pressure on the city to intensify the department’s operations in a way that would overrun that revenue would result in Luckino having to divert money from other municipal programs.
Luckino today told the Sentinel, “From a staff perspective, we are waiting for the ad hoc committee to make its recommendation to find out what the resolution is. We feel at this point the county annexation process is probably the best course for the people of Twentynine Palms in terms of both safety and sustainability. The fire department does a great job but sustainability, given the financial limitations imposed on it, is an issue. The council has not weighed in on this yet. For the city to take on that responsibility it would need to have a revenue source. Otherwise it would jeopardize other services the city must provide. The process we envision is for there to be three or four ad hoc committee meetings. Once, hopefully, the ad hoc committee comes to a consensus, its recommendation will come to the council and there will be a joint meeting of the water district board and the council. As city manager, I would never put the citizens at risk in terms of safety or financially. Ultimately, if the city is to take on the fire department responsibility it must have a revenue source to provide that service.”
Even before the ad-hoc committee had formed, there was talk of tentative preparations to have the fire department’s 88-square mile service area annexed to the county fire district pursuant to a seven or eight month process that would begin in October and allow the county fire department, under the direction of county fire division chief John Chamberlain, to take over the fire protection operations in Twentynine Palms officially as of July 1, 2016.

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