29 Palms Revamping Fire Station

The San Bernardino County Fire Division’s takeover of the Twentynine Palms Fire Department, which was given approval by the San Bernardino County Local Formation Commission on February 17, is moving ahead.
Accompanying the takeover is a $160,000 effort by the City of Twentynine Palms to renovate the department’s downtown fire station.
The provision of fire service within the 55 square miles within the Twentynine Palms City Limits and 33 square miles of unincorporated county area within the city’s sphere of influence has long been a hot potato that the local governmental entities have wanted to avoid dealing with. The 29 Palms Fire Department has been in existence since 1957, and was from its outset 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 have been up until this point entirely defrayed by an annual $84 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. Traditionally the city did not not contribute to or in any way subsidize the operation of the fire department. In 2012, voters within the jurisdiction of the water district rejected, by a margin of 850 votes of endorsement, or 48.27 percent, to 911 in opposition, or 51.73 percent, Measure H, which would have increased the special $84 per year fire protection service assessment customers of the Twentynine Palms Water District pay to $120 per unit annually.
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, was forced to downsize to function within the financial confines of the $1,244,800 in revenue from the annual proceeds of the special fire service assessment. Fire chief Jim Thompson pared operations such that the department was 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. For 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.
Consequently, the move to have the water district hand off the fire department evolved. 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.
The remainder of the LAFCO board approved the county fire district’s annexation of the Twentynine Palms Fire Department on a 6-0 vote. As a consequence of LAFCO’s approval of annexing all property within the water district’s boundaries into the county fire protection district, property owners within it will see their annual fire fee, which is added onto each landowner’s property tax bill, increase from $84 to $148 with 3 percent increases possible every year after.
The city’s traditional reluctance to take on the operational burden of the fire department was based on its lack of revenue. Curiously, however, despite the City of Twentynine Palms having ultimately opted out of bringing the fire department in-house, the city council did earlier this year consent 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.
An element of that leasing arrangement is the $160,000 renovation of the downtown fire station, an effort being overseen by assistant city manager Larry Bowden. Because of the work, which is likely to take a month to complete, firefighters have been moved to nearby temporary lodgings.
Work will include installing new roofs on the three structures at the fire station, putting in rain gutters and spouts, new ceiling panels and insulation, new carpeting, new air conditioning units and evaporative coolers, ducts, some plumbing, toilets and showers, replacing drywall, installing new counter tops, new lockers and new doors. Outside the building, cracked and uplifted sidewalks will be repaired along with revamping the curbs and gutters.
The city is using revenue available from its Project Phoenix account, money which was set aside by the city’s former redevelopment agency for rejuvenating downtown and which the city was able to recover after the state confiscated the money. Project Phoenix is thus one of the last municipal redevelopment projects to be carried out in California.

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