The El Dorado County Fire Protection District continues to look at ways to stay on budget with most of last Thursday’s board meeting dominated by financial items.
Earlier this month, it notified all El Dorado County FPD retirees that it was in the process of negotiating how much it contributes to the health care benefits of employees and retirees due to “ongoing severe budgetary concerns,” saying “there is the likelihood of an upcoming increase in their contribution levels.”
However, that notification drew a rebuke from several retirees in the audience who criticized the district for changing what had been promised to them and for not keeping them informed about what changes the district is contemplating.
Related to that discussion was a report by Director Dennis Thomas, who said he had examined an actuarial study of the growth in health benefits for retirees. Calling them a “little scary” he said they are growing faster than the district’s budget.
The board also discussed a letter from Cal Fire describing why the agency had declined to respond to El Dorado County FPD’s Request for Proposal to run the district.
In the letter to the district, Ken Pimlott, director of Cal Fire, explained that, “due to significant fiscal margins under which the district is currently operating, I am unable to offer a proposal that will benefit both the district and Cal Fire.” He went on to say, “Should EDCFPD’s financial position change, I am open to reviewing any future proposal.”
Speaking for Cal Fire at the meeting was Unit Chief Kelly Keenan. Saying he was “personally disappointed that we were unable to offer a proposal,” he lauded how hard staff from Cal Fire and EDCFPD had worked on the proposal. It was not for a lack of trying that led to Cal Fire’s decision, he added.
Director Thomas then asked what changed, saying he thought Cal Fire had a good picture of the district’s finances. In response, Keenan said that between the time the district issued the RFP and when it was reviewed by Cal Fire, EDCFPD’s budget had been reduced by $1 million. “That was a significant change in particular,” he said.
“Are you saying you couldn’t do it better than what we’re doing now with the budget we have?” asked Thomas.
Keenan answered no, saying many things were factored into Cal Fire’s decision, including the district’s infrastructure, revenues, workforce and contingency funds.
Director Mark Johnson pressed Keenan for a more definitive answer, saying he wanted to know the real reason for the turn-down. “The bottom line is everyone was salivating over this thing,” he said. “We thought it would be a good deal, had meetings with the employees. Everyone was excited and all of a sudden the rug was pulled out from under us. They knew we had old equipment and old stations. I have to say out loud, what changed, and why now we’re not good enough?”
Disagreeing with Johnson’s remarks, Keenan said Cal Fire has a lot of respect for the district. But since April, EDCFPD has had some challenges and the $1 million change was the toughest thing to work with, he continued.
While several board members acknowledged the district’s lack of reserves and sagging property tax revenue, they also noted that they had cut expenses and were staying on budget. “We are in a better position than we’ve ever been in and are heading in the right direction,” noted Director Chris Swarbrick.
The board then went on to hear an updated plan to replace aging fire equipment by Division Chief Kurt Taylor. With the last plan done in 2009, Taylor noted the district needs to update its apparatus at a total cost of almost $6.8 million.
Noting the difficulty of getting grants to pay for equipment purchases, Taylor said one way to pay for the equipment would be with a voter approved parcel fee. The cost would be $455 per parcel if assessed all at once; $91 if done over five years; $65 if done over seven years; and $45.50 if done over 10 years. Another source would be general operating funds taken out of the budget over a 10-year period. Swarbrick suggested leasing as a third option.
Taylor also prepared an inventory list of firehouses and property. The district currently has 18 properties including 16 stations, a former station at Rancho Del Sol and property on Crazy Horse Road. The board listed those station houses that could potentially be disposed of, including Station 18 on Sly Park Road, Station 22 on Fort Jim Road, Station 24 on Texas Hill Road, Station 27 on Gold Hill Road and Station 73 on State Highway 49. Taylor said a document search would be needed before any properties could be sold.
A list of four surplus engines and what to do with them was also reviewed. The board approved disposing of two of them while reserving judgment on the other two, which have historical or sentimental value.
Chief Mike Hardy reported that the Joint Powers Authority ambulance operation, instead of being $700,000 in the red, has a surplus of $80,000. Currently they are working on an application for reimbursement from Medicare. The proposal to outsource the JPA has been tabled for now until they know what their budget will be. Hardy said the JPA may also change the way the budget is processed to the five provider agencies.