SAN BERNARDINO—As anticipated, the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission has ratified the City of San Bernardino’s move to transfer responsibility for the provision of fire protection within the 59.2 square mile confines of its city limits to San Bernardino County.
The Commission, known by its acronym LAFCO, acceded to the outsourcing of the oldest fire department in the county, which has been in existence for 137 years, creating a new county-run fire protection service zone, annexing the entire city into that zone, and approving a $148 per year parcel tax on the more than 42,000 properties in the city.
Those measures facilitate the San Bernardino County Fire Department’s takeover of the San Bernardino City Fire Department, which officials said they hoped would be effectuated by July 1.
The LAFCO board unanimously approved the change, over the sporadic protests of a dozen citizens. By law, the city’s residents are now to be given the opportunity to themselves turn thumbs down on the transfer, but for that opposition to be successful, a majority of the landowners would need to register their opposition to the annexation plan by means of written protest. Local Agency Formation Commission staff are now in the process of sending by U.S. Post an explanation of each property owner’s right to lodge such a protest, together with a form to do just that to both registered voters and landowners. There has never been an instance in California history where such a protest vote has prevented a local governmental entity with proceeding with its assessment plans.
The city’s move to shed its department is a by-product of its long deteriorating financial condition which manifested in its August 2012 filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. 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, i.e., police officers and firefighters.
A provision put into the San Bernardino charter by means of a citywide vote in 1939 – known as Section 186 – requires 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 continued to give firefighters and police officers raises in keeping with the provisions of Section 186 of the city charter.
In September 2014, Riverside-based Federal Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury acceded to the city’s request to abrogate its labor contract with the firefighters union and impose a contract with terms more favorable to the city and less advantageous to the firefighters.
In 2014, the city council 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 April 2015, the San Bernardino City Professional Firefighters, the bargaining unit representing San Bernardino’s firemen, filed a pair of lawsuits, asserting the city had run afoul of the municipal charter in imposing rampdowns on firefighter pay and benefits.
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. While some celebrate the city’s firefighters as brave heroes, others see them as overpaid prima donnas who do little actual work and spend most of their time on the clock sleeping or lounging around the city’s various fire stations. A majority of the city council became 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, former city manager Allen Parker, in conjunction with Mayor Carey Davis and assistant city manager Nita McKay, moved full speed ahead toward liquidating the fire department. In doing so, Davis elected to damn the torpedoes represented by the resistance or opposition of the firefighters and their unions.
Unlike the San Bernardino City Professional Firefighters, the San Bernardino Fire Management Association, which represents seven of the fire department’s senior staff, had not been vocal about the developing plans to outsource the fire department. But when that plan was at last on the brink of being initiated last summer, San Bernardino Fire Department Battalion Chief Michael Bilheimer, the management association’s president, at last went on record against the ploy to save the city money, stating in a communiqué intended for all city residents, “Outsourcing the fire department is a bad idea for San Bernardino.” Bilheimer continued, “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. 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. 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. There is no replacement for the experienced and knowledgeable firefighters currently serving this community; any substitute stands to compromise public safety.”
The LAFCO vote renders Section 186 moot with regard to the city’s firefighters, who will no longer be city employees but rather county employees.
The Local Agency Formation Commission approval of the annexation came nearly simultaneously with the San Bernardino City Professional Firefighters arriving at a so-called tentative “global settlement” with city officials to bring to a close the litigation it had engaged in against the city with regard to economies the city instituted that impacted the department and its firefighters.
With roughly a dozen city residents telling the LAFCO board that they were opposed to the proposed annexation and creation of the fire assessment district because they wanted to keep the city fire department in place, that they considered the tax unreasonable and excessive and that city officials had created the fiscal crisis by a series of poor decisions, the board members paid lip service to their sentiments but found that the drastic fix was needed to ensure that public safety in the county’s larges city be maintained.