Hesperia On The Brink Of Jettisoning Once Fully Independent Fire Protection District

HESPERIA—The decline of the Hesperia Fire Protection District from an independent, stand alone entity into one that will no longer exist, now 27 years in the running, lurched forward this week.
On August 4, the city council requested the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission to look into the procedural process for dissolving the district entirely.
At a specially called afternoon meeting, the council voted to have the commission look at a comprehensive change in how the city provides fire protection for its residents, specifically contracting with the county to have its fire department expand its service area to include Hesperia. The Hesperia Fire Protection District was created in 1957 and continued for more than two decades as one of the community’s major institutions, existing as an independent entity for 21 years. Prior to cityhood, the Hesperia community had four high profile public agencies, entities and organizations that were strongly identified with it: the Hesperia Recreation and Park District, the Hesperia Water Agency, the Hesperia Chamber of Commerce and the fire district. When Hesperia incorporated as a city in 1988, the fire district was absorbed as a subsidiary district of the municipal government. The formerly independently elected members of its board were deposed and the city council took their places. The district technically continued to exist, but as a creature of the city.
The city was able to bag the fire department upon incorporation because the fire district’s boundaries were coterminous with the newly created city limits. It took a little longer for the city to swallow the Hesperia Water Agency, but did so in the early 1990s. There has been constant second-guessing of the city’s takeover of the water and fire protection functions, with suggestions that city officials have subjugated both divisions and the service they provide to other adverse interests, including charges that city officials diverted revenue obtained from water department operations to other city departments unrelated to the delivery of water and the maintenance of the water system.
In the mid-1990s, the city was dogged by the so-called “revolt of the Young Turks” within the fire department, which included resistance to city policy by upstart members of the department, including then-fire chief Bob May and then-fire marshal David Yegge, both of whom chaffed under the leadership of then-city manager D.J.Collins.
In 1994, amid considerable controversy, city officials entered into a contract with the county fire department to staff the fire department, such that the city’s firefighters were no longer employed by the city, although the department was still referred to as the Hesperia Fire Protection District.
The 2004 move to have county personnel provide fire prevention, fire suppression and  ambulance  services was justified at that time as a cost saving undertaking. The district continues to exist as a legal entity defined as a “subsidiary division” of the city, with the city council serving as its appointed governing board.
The dissolution of the fire protection district in its entirely is likewise being proposed as a cost saving move. In approving the city’s budget in June, the city council was informed by city manager Mike Podegracz that the district is in a “a serious deficit condition,” with retirement benefits being paid to retired firefighters seriously eating into the department’s operating and reserve capital, such that the stated goal of maintaining a ten percent reserve – $1.16 million – is not being met. Rather, the reserve cushion has dwindled to $232,038.
The state of the fire department is something of an embarrassment to the city of Hesperia, particularly one of its city councilmen, Mike Leonard, a former firefighter. At 72 square miles, Hesperia is the county’s second largest city geographically but is serviced by just four fire stations, including one that is partially funded by the county.

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