Part 1: Fire districts cut to the bone

By From page A1 | March 15, 2011

Editor’s note— Part 1 of this three-part series describes fire district funding inequities in El Dorado County and the status of a proposed regional consolidation. Part 2 will explore how districts across the county are struggling to get smaller, the history of funding inequities and how salaries compare across districts. Part 3 will look at the west slope fire districts individually, and report how the aid-to-fire cuts will affect the rural districts.

Pioneer Fire Chief Robert Gill reported that Station 31, which serves the Grizzly Flat and Happy Valley communities, is no longer being staffed. Some response times will double.

Rescue is down two full positions. Georgetown cut one captain and two seasonals. The Diamond Springs El Dorado Fire Protection District is down six positions. Members also gave themselves an 8 percent across-the-board pay cut.

Volunteers and seasonal firefighters are seeing more action in fire districts county-wide as fire chiefs fight for their fiscal lives in the face of lower property tax revenues and the looming termination of county aid-to-fire, which has pumped $1.3 million into underfunded rural fire districts annually since 2001.

The recession and housing crisis exacerbated funding inequities built into the property tax distribution system in the aftermath of Proposition 13, which froze property tax at 1 percent of assessed property value in 1978.

At the time, cities, counties, and special districts: fire, schools, utility and recreation, split up the 1 percent, approximating the portion of tax revenue each agency received prior to 1978.

Those original tax allocations, or “increments,” have remained largely unchanged since then.

The housing boom provided a healthy revenue influx in the early to mid-2000s, especially in more urban districts. El Dorado Hills was able to stockpile a huge reserve while building spacious fire stations, buying equipment and adding staff.

Underfunded rural fire districts continued to languish, however, getting by with tight staffing and aging equipment, depending on volunteers and neighboring districts in a tight mutual aid agreement.

The El Dorado County Board of Supervisors recognized the situation and instituted an “aid-to-fire” subsidy for eight rural fire districts in 2001, supplementing their property tax revenue from the county General Fund to a level equal to the median tax allocation for county fire districts, 13 percent.

The clock is ticking for those six western slope and two Tahoe fire districts, following the Board of Supervisors’ 2009 decision to end the $1.3 million aid-to-fire subsidy, an action that will likely change how, and perhaps how much fire and ambulance services are provided in El Dorado County.

The board shuffled fire and ambulance funding last year to help the aid-to-fire recipients get through the end of 2011 while consultants were hired and reports written. Fire officials contacted for this story said they’d hoped that the resulting “Citygate” report would contain more specific solutions to the funding crisis.

Almost two years later, it’s now up to the fire chiefs to develop a road map to fiscally viability in a system of geographically, demographically, culturally and economically disparate districts.

The system’s strong mutual aid agreement is likely to spread the impact around the entire county. On the western slope it will be felt most in the districts who received aid-to-fire:

Garden Valley, Georgetown, Latrobe, Mosquito, Pioneer and Rescue.

The 2007-2008 grand jury encouraged them to economize by merging with neighboring districts, stopping short at Meeks Bay and Fallen Leaf, which are too geographically isolated to merge.

Consolidations are nothing new in El Dorado County. Diamond Springs and El Dorado joined forces in 1979. Several rural districts consolidated with Placerville’s fire department between 1991 and 1994 to form the El Dorado County Fire Protection District.

El Dorado County Fire Chief Bruce Lacher reported that merging the compensation packages from the previously independent districts was complex and time consuming. “Some bargaining units had to make sacrifices,” he said. “But the agencies involved wanted it, which helped.”

In response to the Citygate Report, Rescue Fire Chief Tom Keating and former El Dorado Hills Chief Brian Veerkamp proposed a hybrid regional consolidation that would annex rural fire districts into El Dorado Hills Fire. The rural districts would have retained their identity, with full control over district policies, compensation agreements and staffing, serving with relative autonomy under an umbrella El Dorado Hills Fire Board.

Precedent in state law for such a hybrid annexation proved unclear, however. Rural district chiefs were only lukewarm to the idea in two county-wide meetings. The proposal died when the El Dorado Hills Fire Board concluded that the proposal wouldn’t be in the best interst of their community. In the Feb. 17 board meeting they asked interim Fire Chief Jim O’Camb to draft a letter to the county fire chiefs updating them on the district’s position and indicating that El Dorado Hills remains open to proposals from neighboring districts.

Latrobe, Cameron Park and Rescue all rejected proposed mergers with El Dorado Hills between 1996 and 2006.

El Dorado Hills is not without suitors, however. Representatives of the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District have contacted the El Dorado Hills Fire District through the union leadership. Board President Greg Durante reports that no formal discussions have been held.

Meanwhile, Georgetown and Garden Valley are working toward their own consolidation, a move that Garden Valley Chief Bill Dekker said would “take two underfunded districts and make one larger underfunded district.”

Fire officials from Rescue and Diamond Springs-El Dorado have also met to discuss working together.

Any megers would likely consolidate the partner districts’ administrative staffs. Todd Cunningham, the Diamond Springs-El Dorado Fire Protection District chief, predicted that the talks themselves whould yield greater resource sharing and create opportunities to centralize operations such as training, vehicle maintenance, incident command responsibility and prevention programs.

Conventional district mergers typically must reconcile district policies and compensation packages defined by employee agreements that specify wages, benefits and station staffing levels.

The cost of bringing the “have not” firefighters up to “have” levels could easily outweigh savings from consolidating districts.

For that reason, Keating predicted that any “sub-regional consolidation” that occurs will likely take the form of a “contract for service,” which would simplify personnel issues and allow both districts to retain their identities.

Part two will examine firefighter compensation in all eight western slope fire districts.

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Mike Roberts

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