Needles Residents Object To Terms Of Fire Truck Return

In the continuing saga of Needles’ fire truck tug-a-war, that city’s “fire auxiliary,” a community based organization formed in opposition to the San Bernardino County Fire District’s takeover of the city’s fire department operation, has received a copy of correspondence on official San Bernardino County Fire District letterhead addressed to Rick Daniels, city manager of Needles. In that letter, San Bernardino County Fire Division Chief Thomas E. Marshall addresses the issue of the return of the fire “engine” to the local city fire department in the event of “de-annexation” or dissolution of the newly formed Needles service area of the district.
In the letter, Marshall declared that as of June 29, the “engine” was “annexed to [the] county fire [district]” and “we have determined that if the city were to de-annex, we would be able to sell it back to the city at the market value at the time. Additionally if the engine reaches the end of its useful life prior to that potentially occurring, the city would have the first right of refusal.”
There is one hitch, however. Marshall said it should be noted that “the county fire district has been paying all of the repair cost that would normally have been the city’s responsibility for the last 3 years. These repairs have averaged more than $45,000.00 per year. Additionally, that engine is currently in the shop for extensive repairs estimated to cost more than $35,000.00 this year.” Marshall further asserted that “All equipment on the engine would remain the property of the county fire district as all equipment originally purchased by the city has passed its useful life and has already been replaced by the district.”
The fire auxiliary’s administrator, Ruth Musser-Lopez, speaking before the city council on Tuesday, July 12, objected to the conclusions arrived at by Marshall, characterizing his written proclamation to be “shyster business. All of you on the council except Louise Evans voted for this, to get around Prop 13 and 218 that requires a 2/3 vote of the electors before taxing again…especially one like this which disproportionately burden the poor…We’ve been paying over $600,000 a year for the county to run our two-man fire department and now they say that ‘they’ paid for the repairs and the replacement equipment? They have provided us with no fiscal accounting showing how their money and not ours was used for this” she said.
The Sentinel has learned that the auxiliary intends to file a rebuttal letter with the city and county and to make a public records request for all contracts and agreements between the city and county pertaining to the fire operation and for the financial records of the fire operation for the last three years, including income and expenditures.
“We need a grand jury investigation on this. The county drove the engine into the ground taking it out of town into wilderness fires and on the I-40 to do county business,” Musser-Lopez said. “They had an obligation to maintain the fire truck in the same condition as when they received it—especially since they were using it for county purposes. We should not have to pay for the truck all over again when we were also paying them to run the fire department and keep the equipment up. The reason the county was paying for the repairs is because we were paying them to pay for the repairs and the repairs were mostly needed because of county business, not because of fires in town. We are two weeks into this annexation and Mr. Marshall is claiming that the district paid for all of this. It’s time to open the books on county fire and expose this county rip off.”
The Marshall letter was an outcome of a settlement reached by Musser-Lopez, who filed suit in pro per, and Needles City Attorney John Pinkney at the court steps short of a legal action for an injunction was to be filed just before certification of the annexation by San Bernardino County’s Local Area Formation Commission (LAFCO). During the informal negotiations between the parties, a promise was made by Pinkney and Daniels via teleconferencing with Marshall that the auxiliary would receive a written statement from county fire that the fire engine would be returned to the city should the voters decide to de-annex. “Marshall’s terms are unacceptable,” Musser-Lopez pronounced. “We are going to need a new city council this November who will demand that the city manager and attorney fight for the people of Needles for the return of our fire truck without paying for it all over again, once we de-annex and re-establish our bludgeoned fire department.”
Meanwhile, in a related action, members of the fire auxiliary, Musser-Lopez, Ed Mathews and Mary Stein filed with the city their intent to circulate a voter initiative pertaining to the reestablishment of the fire department. On Tuesday, July 12, a ballot title and summary prepared by the city attorney was received by the auxiliary.
The title given by the city attorney is “Initiative Measure Prohibiting and Dissolving Annexation to a County Fire District and Mandating the Maintenance of a City-Staffed Fire Department.”
The ballot summary as prepared by the Needles city attorney states:
“The proposed initiative measure seeks to prohibit the City of Needles from taking any action to annex the city’s territory to the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District. The proposed measure further seeks to prohibit the city from enlarging the district’s sphere of influence into the city’s territory. In addition, the measure seeks to require the city to operate a fire department for the provision of fire protection services consistent with current International Organization for Standardization standards.
“The proposed initiative measure also seeks to dissolve all district ‘service zones’ including ‘Service Zone FP-5 Needles’, in the city existing at the time the ordinance is passed, in addition to any agreement to increase the district’s sphere of influence into the city’s boundaries. The proposed initiative measure further seeks to prohibit the city from transferring or leasing the city fire department’s property to the County of San Bernardino or district as a part of any reorganization or annexation plan.  In addition, upon dissolution of Service Zone FP-5 Needles, the proposed initiative measure seeks to require the city manager to negotiate for the return of the city fire department’s property.
“The proposed initiative measure requires the city fire department to be managed in a manner that preserves the current International Organization for Standardization insurance ratings and by a fire chief employed by the city. The fire chief will be required to employ or contract fire fighters for the provision of fire services. The fire chief will also be required to cause a map to be made and updated, identifying the locations of all fire hydrants within the city and to maintain said fire hydrants in operating condition.
“The proposed initiative measure seeks to repeal the district service zone flat tax of $148.24 and to impose a one-time tax, for a period not to exceed two (2) years, upon each parcel within the city at a rate of 0.15% of assessed value, not to exceed $120.00 per parcel per year. The tax imposed by the initiative measure will be used for the city fire department’s start-up expenses, including the cost of staffing, equipment and education and training of the city fire department’s professionals.”

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