Under Water District Control For 57 Years, 29 Palms Fire Department To Go To County

After 57 years of being operated by the Twentynine Palms Water District, the Twentynine Palms Fire Department is on the verge of being subsumed by the San Bernardino County Fire Department as one of its regional fire districts.
On August 5, the Twentynine Palms Water District board of directors initiated on a 4-to-1 vote a service annexation application with the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission for fire protection in the city and its surrounding sphere of influence.
With Carol Giannini dissenting, the water board approved the application and a motion calling upon the city of Twentynine Palms to consent to the annexation. The board directed water district staff to work with city and county fire staff to prepare the application and bring it to the board of directors for consideration and approval.
Since 1958, the fire department in 29 Palms has been overseen by the water district. At its peak, 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 department has since shrunk in size. 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.
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 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 annualy 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, after the water district and the city of Twentynine Palms worked on a proposal to have the county’s fire division take on the fire department. County fire chief Mark Hartwig said that in working within the confines of the $1.244 million in available special tax funding for local fire service, the county would need to close down one of the fire stations and reduce the department to no more than four firefighters.
The water board retained control of the fire department and 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.
Conflicting imperatives have created gridlock and paralysis with regard to the fire department. Some residents are vociferous in calling for maintaining local control but their passion is not matched by a willingness of the citizenry in the 25,768-population city or its more sparsely populated outlying area to tax themselves to achieve that goal. City officials are unwilling to transform Twentynine Palms into a full service city. The city does not boast municipal water or sewer divisions, and contracts with the sheriff’s department for law enforcement service. The water district, clearly, is staggering under the responsibility of running the fire department. After years of seeking to work out a cooperative arrangement with the city for the operation of the fire department, the Twentynine Palms Water District Board of Directors in June called for the creation of an ad-hoc committee to consider the fire department’s fate, essentially signaling the water district would no longer go it alone in propping up the fire department.
The August 5 meeting entailed a level of intensity, with discussions moving close to the realm of argument.
Local Agency Formation Commission Executive Director Kathleen Rollings-McDonald’s sober assessment of the financial and administrative reality, however, pulled the collective away from the brink of chaos. Rollings-McDonald said the community would need to act with dispatch to meet the timelines for bringing the fire department under county management by the beginning of the 2016-17 fiscal year, which begins next June 1. She said the fire protection service annexation application, which is to entail a service protocol and a five-year financial analysis, would need to be on her desk by September 30. She said an “arduous… six-month” evaluation of the application will follow. Only if that application passes muster, Rollings-McDonald said, will the commission sign off on it. But the commission’s approval would not cinch the county fire department takeover, she said. The commission’s board approval of the annexation would simply clear the way for a review by the voters living in the 88-square mile service area. That review would consist of a protest period. If 50 percent plus one of the area’s registered voters lodge objections, the application would be rescinded. If the protest meets a 20 percent threshold, then an election would be held.

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