SB On Brink Of Dissolving FD & Contracting With County For Fire Service

SAN BERNARDINO—The consultant the city of San Bernardino has relied upon to make a determination about the financially beleaguered municipality’s best option for providing future fire service has recommended outsourcing fire protection to the San Bernardino County Fire Department.
As early as 2012, city officials were kicking around the concept of dissolving the municipal fire department and contracting with another provider of fire service, most likely a governmental entity, to staff the city’s fire stations.
In August 2014 the city council directed city manager Allen Parker to seek bids from a host of agencies that might provide fire services. Parker approached the county, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and the fire departments of some surrounding cities, in particular Colton, which has a cooperative service arrangement with the city of Loma Linda, to see if they would, in exchange for a set fee, take on the burden of providing fire protection to the county seat.
The city earlier this year put out a formalized request for proposals to the three aforementioned public agency fire service providers, along with Centerra Group, a Florida-based private company.
Given San Bernardino’s weak financial picture and its ongoing bankruptcy in which it was withholding payment from the lion’s share of its vendors and service providers, both the Colton Fire Department and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, led by its chief Ken Pimlott, declined to make formal proposals.
San Bernardino County Fire and Centerra did respond and the city retained Citygate Associates to evaluate their bids.
This week, Citygate delivered to Parker its conclusion that a long term service relationship with the county fire division, given all of the existing regional arrangements and the firefighting assets and facilities currently owned and employed by the city and the county, is the city’s best option. Parker presented Citygate’s findings to the city council.
According to Parker. liquidating the city’s fire department and contracting with the county fire division would save the city $7 million annually and increase the level of fire and emergency response, and in some areas of the city decrease department response time.
According to Parker, one of the city’s existing fire stations would be shuttered, but its service area would then be served by one of the county’s fire stations. Overall, the number of firefighters working in the 59.645 square mile city would increase from the current 38 to 41 per shift. In effectuating the change, the city limits would become a county fire district.
The dissolution of the fire department, which has existed as a municipal entity since 1878, is an outgrowth of the severe financial challenges facing the city. After more than two decades of a deteriorating local economy and several budgetary cycles of deficit spending, the city filed for Chapter Nine bankruptcy protection in 2012. Both past and current city leaders have stated the belief that some of the city’s financial challenge is attributable to what they characterize as overly generous wages guaranteed to the city’s public safety employees.
Provisions put into the San Bernardino City Charter by means of a citywide vote in 1939 – which became known as Section 186 – require that the city’s public safety employees – firefighters and police officers – be paid on a scale equal to the average pay of police officers and firefighters in ten similarly-sized California cities.
San Bernardino, the county seat and the largest city in the county, has a population of 213,708. Yearly, city officials and police and fire union heads start with a list of California cities with populations between 150,000 and 250,000. In turns, each removes a city from that list until ten remain. Salaries are then computated upon the average pay to that particular group – firefighters or fire department management or policeman or police management – in the remaining ten cities.
Despite the city’s bankruptcy filing it has continued to give firefighters and police officers raises in keeping with the provisions of Section 186 of the city charter. The city council last year put on the ballot a referendum to remove Section 186 from the city’s charter. The city’s police and fire unions strongly opposed the initiative, known as Measure Q, and in the face of the spirited campaign against it, the initiative was defeated.
In the current fiscal year, police department and fire department operations represent 68 percent of the spending out of the city’s general fund. Salaries make up the lion’s share of those departments’ operating budgets. A majority of the city council is convinced that the continuation in the escalation of public safety employee pay in a city that has declared bankruptcy and is stiffing its other creditors is both unseemly and unsustainable. Confronted with the unwillingness of the fire department’s employees to adjust their salaries and benefits downward, as expressed through the action of the firefighters’ union action with regard to Measure Q, Parker, in conjunction with Mayor Carey Davis and assistant city manager Nita McKay, has moved full speed ahead toward liquidating the fire department. In doing so, Davis has elected to damn the torpedoes represented by the resistance or opposition of the firefighters and their unions. Parker’s resolve to see this effort through has resulted in a protest by the president of the San Bernardino Fire Management Association, which represents seven of the fire department’s senior staff. Previously, the management association had maintained its silence, even as the San Bernardino Professional Firefighters Association, with its much larger hundred-plus members, had vigorously opposed the city’s efforts to pare back fire department operations to save money.
According to San Bernardino Fire Department Battalion Chief Michael Bilheimer, the management association’s president, he had been given assurances by Parker that before any move to close down the fire department, Parker would confer with the management association. Bilheimer said Parker did not live up to that commitment.
Upon learning of Citygate’s recommendation and the fait accompli it represents, Billheimer put out a communiqué which states, “Outsourcing the fire department is a bad idea for San Bernardino. There is an overwhelming amount of information being circulated concerning the contracting out of the San Bernardino Fire Department. Sadly, much of the information has been inaccurate or deliberately kept from the public. I feel obligated to share with you the position of your fire department’s fire management association. We remain confident that your current fire department is best suited to provide all aspects of fire protection to our community. It remains our position that we are able to provide an unparalleled level of service for the lowest cost possible.”
According to Billheimer, “The fire department’s actual cost for FY 2014/2015 was approximately $22 million dollars, not $30 million dollars as is often touted. During FY 2014/2015, the fire department was more than 8 percent under budget, saving approximately $2.5 million dollars that was returned to the general fund.”
According to Billheimer, transforming the city of San Bernardino into a county fire district will entail hidden monetary costs to city residents that have not been disclosed.
“The San Bernardino County Fire Department has shared the fact they intend to assess a $139 district fee to every parcel of property within the city,” Billheimer wrote. “This $139 tax, paid for by homeowners and businesses, is proposed to generate an additional $7.8 million of revenue that is intended to be ‘kicked back’ as a pass-thru to the city’s general fund. This newly imposed fee, at the expense of homeowners and businesses, will serve to subsidize the city’s general fund. The San Bernardino County Fire Department has proposed full annexation as the means by which to provide fire protection. This will result in no control of the cost for your fire department. More importantly, this results in the forfeiture of all property tax funds to the county of San Bernardino ($30 million per year). The loss of property taxes will become even more costly in years to come as property values and development continue to increase.”
In addition, Billheimer wrote, “There are many other concerns about outsourcing your fire department that have failed to be addressed. Other potential impacts are: personnel layoffs, pension liabilities, forfeiture of millions of dollars of assets (fire stations, fire apparatus, etc.), loss of emergency medical services, revenues, etc. The San Bernardino Fire Department has been providing fire protection to the community of San Bernardino for 137 years, and it would be shameful and irresponsible to see it discarded. We are proud of the men and women that make up this exceptional fire department. There is no replacement for the experienced and knowledgeable firefighters currently serving this community; any substitute stands to compromise public safety.”
Billheimer acknowledged that his sudden entrance into the discussion regarding the fire department outsourcing was a departure for the fire management association. “The association stands up just for the seven chief officers in the department, who are the leadership component,” Billheimer told the Sentinel. “We have always been quiet and have had a get-along attitude. We are part of the team who are soldiers for the fire department and we take our orders from our bosses who take their orders from their bosses at City Hall. We have never gotten caught up in the fray. We keep our heads down and work hard. But over the last few weeks, within social media and at public meetings you have seen what is happening and there has been a breakdown in labor relations and there is now a realization that we are here in the eleventh hour and the department is about to cease to exist. The signs that the department will be extinct are there. It is incumbent upon us to take action. We have generated a factual document for the stakeholders in the community.”

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