Fire funding still vexes supervisors

By From page A1 | April 02, 2014

Providing fire protection services to its residents is neither a function nor obligation of El Dorado County government. Those services are the responsibility of 15 separate fire protection districts on the western slope and in the Tahoe basin. “The county is not in the fire protection business,” more than one supervisor has declaimed on more than one occasion when considering whether or not to supplement the fire districts’ finances.

Two hours of soul searching, head scratching, hand-wringing and a measure of back biting during the March 25 Board of Supervisors meeting eventually led to a unanimous decision to give $812,385 to six of the county’s rural fire protection districts. Fallen Leaf Lake, Garden Valley, Georgetown, Mosquito, Pioneer and Rescue fire districts had submitted minimal wish lists in April of last year, and the county had agreed to offer some funding, pending certain conditions. A Fire Advisory Group was formed following the April 9, 2013 meeting consisting of two county supervisors, two rural fire district board directors, two fire chiefs and the executive director of the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO). Chief Administrative Office analyst Mike Applegarth was appointed as coordinator of the advisory group.

In a related matter, the board gave direction to staff regarding the “proposed dissolution of the Latrobe Fire Protection District and annexation of the dissolved district by the El Dorado Hills Fire Department,” as described in the meeting agenda. Thus, Latrobe was removed from the proposed recipient list.

The amounts designated to each district were tentatively determined last year after recipients had submitted requests specific to each district’s particular need — a fire boat for Fallen Leaf Lake and a new engine for Mosquito, for example. Without exception, the small, rural fire districts have increasingly experienced moderate to severe to critical shortages in funding and several have indicated that they may be approaching “end of life” status. How they came to those circumstances is a matter of some differing opinions. And how to reverse their fortunes is almost equally subjective.

Referred to as a “patch,” the money authorized by the board is an emergency contribution both to prevent further degradation of service levels and contingent upon the individual districts entering into an official contract with the county. Technically, the board approved the goals and terms of the contract. In return for the “patch” money, the districts pledged their “intent to participate in a long-term, sustainable funding solution.” Participation would include concrete steps toward achievable plans both to curb spending and develop revenue.

Historically, rural fire districts have been fiercely independent and identified significantly with their communities. Applegarth praised the collective spirit shown by each agreeing to join in the contract. Then admitting that he had been highly skeptical that all entities could come together and work toward a larger goal, he said, “I’m more encouraged now, but we’re not there yet.” He noted that now “the county has a seat at the table with the fire districts.”

Board Chairman Norma Santiago made an observation during her first term that has become part of the board’s regular jargon. “If you’re not at the table, you’re likely to be on the menu.”

Applegarth also stressed that dismal projections of revenue compared to expenditures that the districts presented to supervisors in September had been determined to be accurate.

Supervisor Ron Briggs and Auditor-Controller Joe Harn protested that the districts had not kept their end of the gentleman’s agreement to provide the board with detailed written descriptions of what they have already done to improve their own situations and what they plan to do posthaste. Harn proposed delaying action on the item for two to three weeks to “tighten up the language of the contract,” and “we want to see their plan and contingency plans.”

Earlier in the discussion, he had urged the board to demand three actions: a list of what they (fire districts) have done since 2010, (description of) how they will operate for the next 12 months if they get the money or don’t get it, and a prediction of their fiscal health in June 2015.

“We’ve already given you that,” Applegarth interjected. “I don’t want to debate the auditor…”

“Apparently you do…” Harn snapped back, and Santiago, for the third or fourth time during the hearing called for a higher level of order and professionalism from everyone involved.

Supervisors Ron Mikulaco and Brian Veerkamp drew Santiago’s verbal gavel when they were sniping at each other over who did or did not attend this or that Fire Advisory Committee meeting. Supervisor Ray Nutting was scolded for his inappropriate timing when he interrupted a speaker to make a motion and several times insisted that “politics” should have no bearing on the issues at hand.

Briggs had harsh words for the fire district boards of directors. “I’m not happy with their progress,” he said. “I really wanted to see and hear from the districts as to what they are planning … I reluctantly agreed in September (to the proposed “patch”), but there’s nothing new before the board. Where’s the discussion about how the money will come in (to the districts)? I’m a little befuddled.”

Later, “I like firemen, and I’d like to help firemen … (But) giving the fire district boards money doesn’t solve the problem. The Board of Supervisors should not have to give money (to an) archaic system of special districts. We’re not going to grow (enough to substantially increase revenue,)” Briggs said. “You need to get real. You’re publicly (manipulating us), saying ‘Give us money or we won’t send the fireman.’ We have a seat at the table but we’re not getting anything for it.”

Santiago sought to “clarify the item” at hand noting that “the contract is for one year only, meanwhile the fire districts must work up plans to create a sustainable fire protection program.”

Calling the issue “one of the most divisive we’ve had,” Mikulaco indicated he was “torn” between  the two concepts expressed as “legally we’re not obligated to provide fire protection,” but the alternative of “not having enough boots on the ground and seeing layoffs of (fire personnel) … I hate being laid off,” he said, based on his own experiences.

Veerkamp, a retired fire chief of El Dorado Hills Fire Department, took a different tack with respect to the county being in the “fire business.”

“Land-use drives funding and growth of revenue but also leads to growth of expenses. We’re in the fire business another way,” he said. “Our General Plan says we must have a response time of 15 to 45 minutes. The county also funds the medical services.”

Briggs then sparred on the issue, while accepting “all what Brian said articulately, it’s not the Board of Supervisors in total. All special districts sign off on everything we approve.”

Mosquito fire board director John Moalli reiterated Applegarth’s point. “You’ve got incredible cooperation … The patch is the pathway, not the solution. We’ll be short-staffed and under-equipped if we don’t get this money.”

El Dorado Hills Fire Chief Dave Roberts presented some history of the issue then added, “I think we’ve done everything that’s been asked of us … There’s a deficit when you close a station or (furlough), a deficit to the other districts” that will have to try to compensate for the loss of service.

Mark E. Smith of Garden Valley expressed considerable frustration, saying, “I don’t think the county should hide behind the legalese (of no obligation to provide fire protection). I get nothing for my taxes except for fire (protection services). Supervisor Mikulaco, get your head on straight.”

Applegarth told the Mountain Democrat in a call Thursday that supervisors’ unanimous vote to give the money to the fire districts ultimately was based on their recognition that the districts had fully complied with Phase 1 of the proposed contract when they made presentations on their budgets and cost-cutting efforts back in September. Phase 2, finding sustainable revenue, is on the board’s and the fire districts’ future menu.

Chris Daley

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