29 Palms Water District Sending FD To The County

The folding of the Twentynine Palms Fire Department into the San Bernardino County Fire Department took another step toward the inevitable late last month.
On February 17, the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) approved an expansion of the current San Bernardino County Fire Protection District’s sphere of influence into Twentynine Palms and the 33 square miles surrounding that city. The LAFCO board also approved the county fire district’s annexation of the Twentynine Palms Fire Department on a 6-0 vote.
The 29 Palms Fire Department, which has been in existence since 1957, has always been under the control of the Twentynine Palms Water District.
In 1987, the City of Twentynine Palms incorporated. Its population has since grown to 25,768. Fire department operations are entirely defrayed by an annual $80 special assessment imposed upon all residential and commercial parcels within 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.
Since shortly after incorporation there has been a segment of the Twentynine Palms population that has been in favor of having operation and management of the fire department transferred to the city. There has never been sufficient political will on the city council, however, to have the city accept that financial burden.
In 2012, the Local Agency Formation Commission staff, led by executive director Kathleen Rollings-McDonald, undertook a study, the upshot of which was a finding that the water department’s continued stewardship of the fire department was unsustainable given the financial constraints under which it must function. The city does not contribute to or in any way subsidize the operation of the fire department. Rollings-McDonald and the Local Agency Formation Commission staff came to its conclusion in some measure because that year voters within the water district jurisdiction rejected Measure H, which would have increased the special $80 per year tax customers of the Twentynine Palms Water District pay to $120 per unit annually. The measure failed by a margin of 850 votes of endorsement, or 48.27 percent, to 911 in opposition, or 51.73 percent, during the mail-in balloting concluded on April 17, 2012.
Thus, the department, which at its peak grew to include two fire stations and seven firefighters to cover the department’s 88-square mile jurisdiction, has been forced to downsize to function within the financial confines of the $1,244,800 in revenue from the annual proceeds of the special tax imposed on residents and businesses. 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, augmented by 28 reserve/volunteer firefighters, all of whom are aspiring professional firemen who have attended a fire academy. Nearly all of them return to their homes in the more distant areas in San Bernardino County, or Los Angeles, Orange or Riverside counties upon the conclusion of their single 24-hour shift each week.
Four nearly four years, a group of residents pressured the city and city council to have the city take on responsibility for the fire department. That effort ultimately failed.
On August 19, 2015 at a specially called meeting, the Twentynine Palms City Council, with councilwoman Cora Heiser dissenting, voted 4-1 in favor of a resolution calling for Twentynine Palms’ fire protective services to be annexed by the San Bernardino County Fire District.
On February 17 the LAFCO board, with two of its members, county supervisors James Ramos and Robert Lovingood, who both represent portions of the Mojave Desert, abstaining, signed onto the service responsibility transfer.
Despite the City of Twentynine Palms ultimately opting out of bringing the fire department in-house, the city council did agree to take on the water district’s approximately $3 million liability to the Public Employees’ Retirement System, essentially committing to cover the pensions of the fire department’s former firefighters. The city also consented to purchasing the Adobe Road fire station from the water district for $250,000, and then leasing the station to the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District.
Twentynine Palms Mayor Dan Mintz said “negotiations [for the city takeover of the fire department] have been going on for over 10 years. We have tried to find a solution to this.” As it turned out, Mintz said, the city “unfortunately” did not have the wherewithal to run the fire department. “This is where we came to,” he said.
For many, last month’s action represents the worst of both worlds, as the community has surrendered local control, while having to pay more for handing the fire department over to the county. In retrospect, the 2012 proposal to up the $80 fire department service fee paid to the water district to $120 appears more attractive than the $143.92 per parcel tax that will be imposed on property owners in the 56,919 acres served by the Twentynine Palms Water District. As this is technically a tax, those property owners have the right to prevent it from being imposed, but only by getting one more than 50 percent of those living in the area to file letters of protest against the annexation into the County Fire Protection Services District. In the history of the state of California, no such protest letter procedure, which is permitted under California Government Code § 57051, has ever succeeded. Through this protest letter process, voters could theoretically force a public vote or nix the annexation altogether. The protest period will take place during a specified 30-day protest window, which is tentatively set to begin late this month or in early April. If 25 to 50 percent of registered voters submit written protests, voters in the water district will decide whether to allow annexation in a special election. If the protest earns one more vote than 50 percent, the annexation will be rescinded.

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